Do British cities have grid systems? We used science to find out

Some American cities with grid systems, yesterday. Image: Google Maps.

Grids! What are they good for? Basic urban planning, it turns out: take a look at how a US city is laid on a map, and often you’ll be looking at a grid of streets criss-crossing at exactly 90 degrees.

This is not strictly speaking an American phenomenon – similar systems have been used across the world for thousands of years because, well, it’s an easy way to divide up land. Fans of Worthing in West Sussex may be excited to learn that it owes some of its street layout to ‘centuriation’ – the grid system used by the Roman Empire.

But the US has really taken the idea and run with it, as you can see from these charts, which show the most common road orientations within a given city – the closer the chart is to a cross over the centre, the more closely aligned the city is to a grid. Just look at how dead on most of them are:

The street orientations of 25 US cities. Image: Geoff Boeing.

These charts are the work of urban planning researcher Geoff Boeing, who’s put together some software that can analyse the layout of the roads within a city, or any other geographical space, using data from OpenStreet Maps.

 

The streets of Manhattan, in map and polar histogram form. Image: Geoff Boeing.

Here he’s used the same process on 25 cities from around the world, which tend to be a lot less carefully laid out:

Image: Geoff Boeing.

Even where there isn’t a strict grid system, you can still usually make out an overall orientation if you squint – look at London, for instance.

London with some highly scientific lines drawn on it. Image: author’s own work.

When the City of London burned down in the great fire, the suggestions for how to rebuild it actually included various ideas for grid systems. It came to nothing, and the city ended up with broadly the same layout it had before it burned down – but if we use Boeing’s method, we can there is a pattern to the street orientation:

The City of London as a histogram. Image: author’s own work.

Which does make sense when you think about it – the roads either tend to follow the line of, or run down to, the river, thus: a grid.

Here’s the City together with the London boroughs:

The London boroughs as polar histograms of street orientation. Maps are so last year! Image: author’s own work.

What this doesn’t account for is size. Perhaps the larger the borough, the less likely it is to have a clear pattern – whether that be because it has several ‘competing’ grids or just is not going to be tied down with geometry, man. If we compare the City (1.12 square miles) and Bromley, the largest London borough (57.97 square miles), that seems plausible.

But that’s not necessarily true, because here are the boroughs in size order:

The London boroughs, now in size order. Image: author’s own work.

Lambeth is noticeably more of a jumble than its ‘size-neighbours’ Southwark and Camden, for instance.

And for that one guy who complains on Facebook that I only ever write about London, here are 25 UK towns and cities:

London plus 24 other weird places that aren’t London. Image: author’s own work.

But what about the most famous grid system in the UK, in Milton Keynes? Well, erm:

The Milton Keynes ‘grid system’. Image: author’s own work.

So does Milton Keynes have a grid system or not? Well, yes, but isn’t that strict.

Firstly, that’s because not every road is part of the grid – the ‘squares’ of the grid are the main roads and the smaller roads within don’t necessarily conform to any particular layout. And secondly, because it was deliberately designed not be as rigid as an American-style grid. In the words of David Lock, a planner who’s worked in Milton Keynes since the 1970s:

“The designers decided that the grid concept should apply but should be a lazy grid following the flow of land, its valleys, its ebbs and flows. That would be nicer to look at, more economical and efficient to build, and would sit more beautifully as a landscape intervention.”

Don’t worry though, grid fans, they did stick to a proper grid for the town centre.

Grids! Grids! Grids! Image: author’s own work.

Right, now for a rousing singalong of that classic post-war planning anthem: “You’ve never seen anything like it: Central Milton Keynes!”

Altogether now:

Ed Jefferson works for the internet and tweets as @edjeff.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.


 

 
 
 
 

Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.


At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.