Durable Growth

City grids are evidence of where we’ve been

Urbdezine map of New York (from linked article)

Urbdezine map of New York (from linked article)

From above, the street pattern of Petaluma is engrossing.  Decade by decade, it shows who Petalumans were and how they thought about their town.   It’s a fine historical overview, even if some of the information it imparts is unfortunate.

Southwest of the river, many of the major streets are radial from town, showing a focus not on urban transportation, but on agricultural access.  Today Bodega Avenue, Western Street, D Street, and I Street may function more as urban collectors and arterials, but their alignments, spreading like fingers from a hand, shows that they were originally aligned to help farmers bring produce and eggs to town.

Even within the town, the cross-connectors between the early radial streets, Howard Street, Webster Street, the numbered streets, and others, are haphazard, responding not to a master plan, but to the immediate needs of the day.

C Street stops and starts intermittently.  Webster Street jogs oddly near the rear corner of the high school.  Brown Court and Coady Court almost connect, but don’t and probably never will.

These are signs that the town was dealing with day-to-day problem solving, not a long-term vision.  And that the town was responding to the geographic challenges of hills and streams with guile, not earthmoving equipment.

It’s only across the river, moving northeast, that the grid becomes more coherent.  Perhaps influenced by the continued flowering of the industrial world and the resulting belief that science could solve everything, the East D Street neighborhood is a fully connected grid.

But the planners hadn’t yet reached their ultimate conclusions, so the blocks are oddly configured, unusually long in the northwest-southeast direction and more suited for backyard egg production or truck gardens than full connectedness.  Nor is there a strong hierarchy between the streets.

Moving further northeast, across the freeway, the full flowering of post World War II land planning becomes evident.  A strong hierarchy of arterials and collectors isolate pockets of residential, some of which follow a near grid and others of which have follow a more sinuous, mock-organic pattern, pretending to be a bucolic countryside and attempting to ignore the enclosing street network.

Returning to the west side and looking beyond the first row of hills is hopefully the final gasp of land planning hubris.  Victoria and West Haven are pockets of residential housing of moderate density, but without schools, retail, or job centers, relying on streets and cars to reach the necessities of everyday life.

And all of this, a 150-year vista of land-use planning trends as applied to the particular circumstances of Petaluma, can be seen at a glance from 30,000 feet.

Petaluma is far from the only town for which this is true.  Starting in Novato and moving south, most Marin communities show the effect of geography, with older downtowns and housing clustered in the more accessible land close to the bay and pockets of more recent and car-dependent housing tucked into valley openings further uphill.

And in Sonoma County, the era in which municipal growth occurred can often be determined from the air.  Sonoma, with a largely intact grid downtown pattern, shows its origins in the Spanish era of California, while Rohnert Park, which has similarities to the east side of Petaluma, experienced its biggest growth in the years after the World War II.

Looking even broadly afield, this article in Urbdezine reviews what the grid patterns of some of the world’s great cities, including San Francisco and New York City, say about the history of their cities.

Another way to look at city grids is the extent to which history and geography allowed a city to remain on a single grid or forced it to divert into multiple grids or a hodgepodge of random street directions.  In this article in City Labs (formerly Atlantic Cities), the compass orientation of all streets in a city are assembled into a single rose.  At a glance, it can be seen that the flat topography and coherent, steady growth allowed Chicago to stay largely on its initial grid, while the organic growth of London over centuries resulted in a rose that is nearly a circle.

The current generation of planners and developers will likely add little to the history of street grids, with infill of the existing grids being more the order of the day, which is a fine thing.   But the existing grids provide more than enough information to hold our attention and to impart a wealth of information about cities.

Schedule Reminders

The next meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat will be Tuesday, June 10.  We’ll convene at 5:30pm at our regular meeting place, the Aqus Café at 2nd and H Streets.  We’ll continue our discussion of “Happy City” by Charles Montgomery.  All are welcome, whether or not they’ve read the book.

Also, our first three outings to check out downtowns before attending local ballgames are quickly approaching.  Dates and places are below.  If you wish to join the outings, please let me know.

San Rafael: Friday, June 13 – Pittsburg Mettle at San Rafael Pacifics, first pitch 7:05pm

Alameda: Sunday, June 15 – Sacramento Spikes at Neptune Beach Pearl, first pitch 3:00pm

Healdsburg: Monday, June 16 – Sonoma County Chili Gods at Healdsburg Prune Packers, first pitch 7:00pm

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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