The New York Times put out a good interactive map on New York’s 1811 Commissioners’ Plan for the city. You can adjust the slider to move between the current map and the 1811 map.

The article recounts the 200th birthday of the plan–“the single most important document in New York City’s development.”.

The Plan basically overlaid a 200 ft x 600 ft. grid over Manhattan island–regardless of topography of the island. It in fact was a reason that many of the hills of New York City were leveled. The basic parcel size in each block is 25×100. 2,000 blocks total.  With the plan, the merchant leaders of New York wanted predictability and they wanted a block that was conducive to commerce and development. What resulted isn’t one of beautiful vistas, some even call it monotonous, but it has worked well and efficiently. The grid takes a back seat to the people and the buildings of the city.

“The 200-foot-long block is short enough to provide continuous diversity for the pedestrian, and the tradition of framing out the grid by building to the street-wall makes New York streets walkable and vibrant,” said Amanda M. Burden, the director of city planning.

But some have reservations. Tony Hiss, author of “In Motion: The Experience of Travel,” said that while the grid contributes orderliness, “I still think it distances us from our natural surroundings, and it has given us a slightly spurious and diminished mental geometry.We think more in terms of linear blocks than neighborhoods.”

In its recently published Making Room for a Planet of Cities, The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy complimented the plan, along with Cerda’s plan for Barcelona, for being farsighted. The 1811 Plan expanded the city by five times. Making Room says that cities should at least consider that more growth will occur than expected; it doesn’t hurt to plan for the possibility when the consequences for under planning are quite worse. Both the 1811 plan and the Barcelona plan are grids and the grid is easily extend-able, making it easy to accommodate future growth. The Lincoln land Institute’s point is that you do not need to commit to building infrastructure and streets now, just say that if the city does expand, this is where the streets would go, so don’t put buildings on what may in the future be streets.

I think lessons can be learned here in China, where some cities are underestimating population growth, or being told to underestimate population growth. The result is a constant reworking of the plan to catch up.

See the Wall Street Journal Blog entry for many other fun maps relating to Manhattan: