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The National Grid
American colonial cities such as Philadelphia, Savannah, New Orleans, St. Augustine, and Santa Fe all began as gridded towns. The idea was not new. The simplicity, elegance, and orderliness of the grid also appealed to the planners of ancient Chinese capitals, Roman colonial cities, and the fortified French medieval towns known as bastides. Even so, the extent of the application of the grid to the settlements of North America during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was without historical precedent. Part of the appeal was ideological: the grid appeared to promote the orderly and egalitarian distribution and use of land. But above all it was a simple and efficient way to survey, map, and distribute large amounts of public land quickly, a method of great value to the booming new towns and cities of the Midwest and beyond.
Most of the grid plans of streets applied to most Midwestern towns and cities, Chicago included, consequently followed patterns determined by a system devised primarily for the distribution of rural land. The Land Ordinance of 1785 called for the rapid and coordinated survey, sale, and settlement of the new national lands in the unsettled West by the imposition of a series of grids. These grids usually consisted of square townships divided into 36 square-mile sections, subdivided, as desired by land purchasers, into smaller rectangular parcels. Originally applied to the Northwest Territory (the area between the Ohio River, the Great Lakes, and the upper Mississippi River), the U.S. Public Land Survey system was repeatedly expanded during the nineteenth century under the auspices of the General Land Office to cover virtually all of the habitable land west of the Appalachian Mountains, with a few exceptions—notably much of the former Spanish Empire in the Southwest, a few pockets of former French colonies, and the original thirteen states. Its greatest force was felt in the landscape west of the Appalachians and east of the Rockies. Though set up to facilitate the distribution and settlement of rural land, the system was already established when most of the urban places in this region were platted. Consequently, this national grid also became the organizational basis for countless American cities and towns. As the most successful of these communities expanded into agricultural land, and rectangular rural land holdings became the basis for the subdivision of primarily orderly rectangular street patterns, blocks, and lots.
While the Public Land Survey readily supported urban expansion, the creators of the Plan of Chicago were not fond of its impact on Chicago. Though orderly in appearance, the survey grid aided and abetted uncoordinated real estate development and as a basis for street layouts, did not respond to local needs for crosstown circulation.
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