Axial Planning

by Don Friedman on January 23, 2018

That’s a view up West Street (a few weeks ago, when we had snow) from an angle that has One World Trade Center more or less centered on the street. West Street takes a slight bend near Albany Street that makes this view possible.

New York has very few such vistas. The Empire State Building, for example, is famously difficult to get a good view of from the streets nearby. To see it properly, you have to be up in another tall building and look over the roofs of low-rises, ignoring the street layout, or be far enough way to get a perspective. This lack of vistas is not really an accident but rather is the logical result of our street plan.

If you want vistas – if you want major streets to end at monuments or monumental buildings – you need to design your city that way. Washington DC, for example, was specifically designed by Pierre L’Enfant to have many diagonal boulevards that gave vistas of the Capital and “President’s House” as well as whatever would end up at all the other centers of the multiple intersections:

This was not a new idea, of course. L’Enfant based it on Renaissance ideas that came from a handful of ancient plans (Alexandria, for example) that featured axial planning and vistas. This kind of thing was sometimes imposed on existing medieval city layouts, such as the boulevards cut through existing Paris neighborhoods in the mid-1800s:

New York’s numbered street layout – the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 – had no such diagonals:

The built-up area is to the left (downtown) in dark gray, the streets are on the right. Note that (a) Central Park hadn’t been thought of yet, (b) the numbered streets end at 155th, so what is now Washington Heights and Inwood is shown as open country, and (c) the big “Parade Ground” would be cut down into today’s Madison Square. The commissioners were quite straightforward about the goal of the street grid: to move people efficiently (it doesn’t) and to create right-angled houses and commercial buildings, which are the most desirable and efficient (eh, maybe).

The story I’m telling is old and has been told many times before. I bring it up because it’s so memorable on those rare occasions when an oddity – such as the Battery Park City landfill putting West Street in the middle of the island rather than at its river edge – accidental creates a vista.

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