In December 2019, I spent four weeks exploring the streets of London UK.
While I love the street life, I hated trying to navigate the network of curved streets and back alleys to get to a specific destination.
On the upside, it was great for flaneuring, as I often found things I didn’t expect (I love urban surprises!). However, I’m not sure I’d want to live there as the chaos of the streets would soon become tedious.
While, some think grid streets are boring, I think they’re great as they allow you to look around without immediately getting lost. There are also advantages to the grid street pattern when it comes to future development.
Calgary’s Grid vs Curved
In Calgary (which wasn’t founded until the 1880s), its downtown, City Centre and established communities (i.e. those built before 1960) are mostly based on a grid. It’s an urban planning principle that was popular early in the 20th Century across North America.
Two exceptions are Mount Royal and Scarboro, which were designed based on the City Beautiful Movement by the iconic New York City-based Olmsted Landscape Architectural firm. That firm’s founder also designed famed Central Park.
The philosophy behind the ‘Movement’ was to create park-like neighbourhoods with tree-lined streets that followed the contour of the land. The though was it would foster pocket parks creating a more peaceful and tranquil quality of life compared to the dirty chaos of the city.
While initially the ‘City Beautiful’ neighbourhoods were limited to communities for the rich, by the middle of the 20th Century, the curved street pattern with boulevard entrances became the norm for residential community designers across North America.
Calgary’s post-1960 suburbs are full of curved street and cul-de -sacs. To make matters worse, developers, with the City’s permission, started naming all the streets in a new neighbourhood with names that started with the same first letter. For example in University Heights, the street names include Uxbridge, Underhill, Urquhart, Udell, Upton, Urlich, Unity and of course University.
As if that isn’t confusing enough, the same street name can be a road, place, court, crescent, circle, grove, park and way in the same neighbourhood. In Scenic Acres, you will find Scimitar Point, Scimitar View and Scimitar Bay all twisted together in the same sub-division.
Who thought this was good idea? And why are we still doing this?
One of Calgary’s unique characteristics is the way the city is divided into four quadrants: NW, NE, SE and SW. In grid neighbourhoods, the streets run north and south and avenues run east and west.
So, if you live at 2518 – 5 Avenue NW, it means you live in the NW quadrant along 5 Avenue between 24 and 25 Streets. It makes it very easy to locate an address. However, as there could also be a 2518 – 5 Avenue in the NE, or SW or SE, you MUST make sure you have the right quadrant.
What is also a bit strange is that Centre Street and Centre Avenue don’t intersect in the middle of downtown as you might expect. In theory, they intersect in the middle of the Centre Street Bridge.
While Centre Street plays a prominent role in the network of streets north of the Bow River and downtown, it has almost no influence south of the City. And Centre Avenue’s role as a divider for the city’s north and south sides is negligible, too. You can find it in Bridgeland/Riverside and west of Blackfoot Trail, but just for a few blocks. In the northwest, Kensington Road is the equivalent of Centre Avenue.
As well, because the grid wasn’t set up so the avenues run true east and west, another quirk is that some avenues end abruptly. For example: 16 Avenue SW ends at 7 Street SW (east end of Tomkins Park). In the NW, 5 Avenue ends at 19 Street NW, then reappears east of 14 Street NW.
Then it appears to dead-end at 10Avenue but shows up a block north only to dead-end at the LRT tracks and then reappear on a diagonal for a block before ending again at the bluff.
Another quirk is in West Hillhurst, where you have a corner that is 1 Avenue and 3 Avenue NW – there’s no street connection whatsoever.
Grid & Infill Development
The grid pattern is great for wayfinding and makes it easy for infilling in the City Centre and established communities. You can easily subdivide a 50-foot rectangular residential lot into two 25-foot lots to build two houses. Or, you can acquire two or three lots and build a small multifamily building or row housing.
Area development will be much more challenging in the post-1960s suburbs, with their irregular pie-shaped lots, curved streets and cul-de-sacs.
In fact, over the past 3 years, 5,000+ new homes have been built in Calgary’s 36 inner city communities. There have been 2,500 (in towers) in the city centre. That’s the equivalent of one new community in the inner-city and another in the City Centre.
Here’s a paper on grid and curvilinear streets – Can we do both?
Grid Is Boring
Some have argued the grid system is boring. I don’t believe so.
You can easily make a grid neighbourhood interesting with pocket parks, playgrounds and front yard landscaping.
Infill housing also makes grid neighbourhoods interesting with the contrast between the old and new architecture.
Straight streets also allow for pastoral tree canopies that help make them park-like. The predominance of front porches vs. front garages also makes grid neighbourhoods more welcoming than curved ones.
Short and sweet.
To me, there is no contest. Grid neighbourhoods trump curved ones every time.