philadelphia -- 9/7/23

Today's encore selection -- from Metropolitan Philadelphia: Living with the Presence of the Past by Steven Conn. The Quaker William Penn helped lead a revolution in city planning: the open grid plan that became Philadelphia. And with the success of Philadelphia -- which quickly became the largest city in the New World -- scores of new American cities adopted his blueprint:

"Having witnessed plague in London in 1665 and the famously calamitous fire of 1666, Penn wanted his Philadelphia to be 'a greene countrie towne, which will never be burnt, and allways be wholsome.' The way he proposed to achieve this was as simple as it was revolutionary: the grid.

"While he held title to a very large tract of land, Penn set aside roughly two square miles for his 'great towne.' He then subdivided within those boundaries into a regular, orderly gridiron. Streets ran straight, north and south, east and west, intersecting at right angles. The two widest streets -- now called Market and Broad -- were more commodious than any street in seventeenth-century London. The grid made its public debut in London in 1683 in a plan titled 'Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia,' an advertisement designed to attract purchasers. That grid, and the city that was laid out from it, constituted the most dramatic act of urban planning in the West probably since the Romans. In an early act of Enlightenment rationality, Penn imposed abstract geometry on the American wilderness.

This 1683 portrait of Philadelphia, created by Thomas Holme, is believed to be the first map ever developed of the city.

"The grid had a purpose beyond a mere abstract, geometric exercise. Orderly space, Penn believed, would shape an orderly society. Rational space, rational people. Rectilinear geometry would be Penn's way of keeping the city's density low, or at least lower than the packed crowded conditions typical of most European cities, and of creating spacious building lots with trees on them. The grid was the shape of utopia. ...

"Plan and principle came together in a few mutually reinforcing ways. As originally envisioned in the grid, the city looked inward on itself toward Center Square in the middle, without privileging a few sites over others much like the way benches in a Quaker meeting house all face each other. New ideas for city planning swirled in the seventeenth century, but many -- Versailles comes quickly to mind -- attempted to organize space for grand displays of power. Washington, D.C., with its overwide diagonals cutting through its rectilinear grid, has become the city where Americans use space to display power. A product of the baroque period, there is nothing at all baroque about Penn's grid.

"More than that, the plan embodied [Penn's Quaker vision of] brotherly love through what it did not include: a wall or any other fortifications. City walls were on the wane in Europe as the medieval world passed into the modern one, but they were certainly still regarded as a necessity in the rough frontier of America. Penn believed, however, that his would be a city of peace, and thus Philadelphia was founded to be an open city."



Steven Conn


Metropolitan Philadelphia: Living with the Presence of the Past


University of Pennsylvania Press


Copyright 2006 by the University of Pennsylvania Press


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