Rearranging the Grid

As I have endlessly noted here, our city of Rochester adopted the scorched earth policy for automobility at an early moment: streetcars removed in 1941, subway demolished in 1956, expressways as our emerald necklace in the 1950s, a mid-century Inner Loop that strangled our central city, demolition of everything possible downtown in favor of parking, and even today the lament that if we make city parking cost what it should, businesses will flee to the suburbs. (Psst – those who would leave are already gone….).

Downtown 1956 aerial

Downtown Rochester, 1957.

So you might think that if we adopted the automobile ahead of most, we might adopt what comes after the automobile ahead of most. Whistling in the dark perhaps, but the challenge continues to be worth considering.

Because it is now time for us to continue rethinking, and rebuilding, our urban grids. As our dependence on personal automobility wanes, as we increasingly move toward purchasing a ride instead of purchasing a vehicle, as our streets no longer need to serve a teeming host of tin cans, we are now free to reimagine how our neighborhoods could be configured, how our blocks and buildings could be shifted, how shared space and new neighborhood nodes could serve us as we walk. Let me illustrate.

I grew up in Chicago, which has a rigorous 330′ x 660′ grid of blocks (with alleys – we have almost none here in Rochester). Historically, there were streetcar routes every few blocks, on streets that had an accretion of commercial establishments. You could come home in the evening and pick up a newspaper, your resoled shoes, a head of lettuce, a cold beer, and then have a short walk of a couple of blocks to get home. Good system.

Using the Chicago block as a basis, I have imagined something like this:

scan1939891 (5)

Here, a wider multi-lane auto street is gone, and in its place a shared space dedicated to transit and the occasional ride sharing pod, and then new mixed use structures, a promenade, and larger residential and working buildings behind, served as well by a mews, or alley. All this fits into a 330′ by 660′ block.

In our city, our streetcar system was of a similar arrangement to Chicago’s, where main drags and key corners had the stuff you needed for everyday life, and home was a short stroll away. All that is long gone, but the remnants remain, as I have said here before.

But in Rochester our blocks were laid out as 240′ deep – 2 lots at 120′ deep each and usually 50′ wide, and infinitely long. Some of our blocks are more than 2,000 feet long. Of course there are plenty of exceptions -= 300′ deep, 270′ deep, etc. – but the one exception was that we have no alleys. What were they thinking? A shorter block in town looks like this:

2020-02-15_112107 (2)

So what to do? First, I want to make every street in the city shared space. New York is working on this in places, and they suggest that a neighborhood street where cars (pods) have access but not sovereignty could look like this:

NYC shared space

Yes, I do know that our city is much less dense, and shorter. Nonetheless, this image still pertains.

After all the streets are shared space, and we have put back a decent transit system of multiple modes

scan1939891 (6)

where the transit map looks more like this:

Melbourne transit map

Then we can come back to our blocks.

Since we can’t insert alleys without demolition, and since demolition must now cease, we can’t cut into the block laterally. Longitudinally we can, and in many places in the city where demolition has occurred, we can simply construct new shared space corridors, like this:

2020-02-15_143806 (3)

Now the blocks are only 800′ long…. Slowing traffic (for whatever autos remain), more walkable or cyclable, permeable both visually and actually, and more manageable.

And now garages. Hundreds and hundreds of garages. The other day I asked a good friend what she thought she would do with hers if there was no need for cars. In an instant (she’s a major fitness guru) she said, “a gym.” A good friend a few blocks away: a wood shop. Other architects and artists we know: studio for paint, drawing or ceramics. Once our very own garage was home to a wonderful goldsmith and jewelry maker named Ruth Rosen (her husband taught at the UofR).

Accessory dwelling units are another use for garages, and in some cases, could live happily with cottage industry. Suddenly the density of our neighborhoods could rise to a greater intensity, and make what are now walkable neighborhoods work even better.

ADU BAY-2ND-UNIT  gundle-adu

Additional heresy could suggest commercial uses in former garages – offices, small shops. I see a little bar down the street, a shop for greens behind us on the next street, a doctor’s office a few blocks down. I can already hear the zoning board choking….

But remember, few places in American life have been more fertile for innovation and entrepreneurship that the garage.

Above clockwise, the garages where Apple, HP and Disney began. There are dozens of other examples, from candles to airlines and beyond.

And last, but absolutely not least, if we can rid ourselves of the paving that once was the driveway (or most of the street), we can create magnificent gardens. Perhaps not as ambitious as this,

Driveway garden

but still more than enough for the neighborhood. We can become both local and sustainable in our own backyards. Or side yards. Or both. Or more.

So now we must set our sights on a better city, measuring our progress against the best we can find around the globe and across the nation. We must have as our goal a city that is just, equitable, accessible, beautiful in every quarter, resilient, and specific. Briefly, we must aim high – or at least higher.

Our city, or any city, can be and should be the locus of the best life, the good life, for all of its citizens. As Aristotle taught us, “Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always acts in order to obtain that which they think good.” (This is certainly worth a moment of reflection).

As change wrought by great forces (and the unintended consequences of more than a century of foolishness) bears increasingly heavily upon us, it is right and critical that we envision a better life, a good life, for our urban future.

That good life, that better life, means recognizing that our current urban arrangements, centered on our instruments and machines, in lieu of our common and public life, and the places we inhabit individually and severally, can no longer be sustained. The opportunity to rearrange the physical place that is our city, and the intellectual and emotional worlds we each carry around with us, is immediately in front of us. We must seize the chance, and change our ways. Onward.


Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s vision of The Good City, Siena, 1338.


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