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The Commissioner’s Plan of 1811

October 2, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

By Phineas Upham

If you’ve ever visited New York City, you might have found it hard not to marvel at its city planning. Except for the times where you’re below ground, it’s extremely difficult to lose your way once you’re walking the city streets. That feeling is thanks to rigid city planning that basically turned New York City into a grid.

The Commissioner’s Plan of 1811 was the first step in outlining what the future city of Manhattan might look like. It’s also been mockingly described as the “Republican predeliction for control and balance… and distrust of nature.” The idea was to divide the land of Manhattan for orderly sale, and the grid just happened to be the most effective means to achieve this.

Historians largely reflect on the visionary leadership that conceived and executed this plan. This grid layout perfectly accommodated a scaling urban complex occupying a relatively small surface area. New York isn’t very big, so the grid makes efficient use of the space that is available. It also allows for building upward.

The plan is also very boring and rigid. When you consider San Francisco’s windy streets the comparison becomes obvious. One of the more entertaining criticisms of the plan reads: “With a T-square and a triangle, finally, the municipal engineer, without the slightest training as either an architect or a sociologist, could “plan” a metropolis…”

The plan was definitely not without critics. Benjamin Moore, who owned the estate occupying the land that would become the neighborhood of Chelsea, objected fiercely because his land stood to be divided in half. Yet the document was laid out in its entirety nevertheless by 1853.


Phineas Upham is an investor from NYC and SF. You may contact Phin on his Phineas Upham website or Twitter page.

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