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/ November 18, 2011
Wagner Professor Hilary Ballon Explains The New York City Grid

On November 17, Hilary Ballon gave her inaugural speech to commemorate receiving the university-wide award, University Professorship. NYU Provost David McLaughlin stressed that this award is given to faculty who show excellence in their interdisciplinary approach to academia. Professor Ballon has inspired many graduate students in Wagner, and has shaped the NYU Abu Dhabi program, with respect to both the academic curriculum as well as the campus design.

Serving as a professor of urban studies and architecture at NYU Wagner, as well as Vice Chancellor of NYU Abu Dhabi, Professor Ballon’s studies have encompassed areas such as 17th century Paris, and, most recently, the New York grid system. Her inaugural speech broke down into three parts: an overview of the 20th century mindset towards New York City, the current paradigm shift underway, and how the city’s grid can serve as a model for the mega cities of the future. Her speech also served as a preview to the exhibit she curated, The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811-2011, which opens at the Museum of the City of New York on December 5.

In the 20th century, as Professor Ballon explained, congestion was the primary concern among city planners in New York. It pervaded every aspect of living. From crowded streets to the cramped living conditions of the tenement building on the Lower East Side, congestion plagued city officials, architects, and residents of New York City. In the words of Professor Ballon, it was a “catch-all urban problem.”

While architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright exalted the comfortable space provided by the suburbs—a current source of contention among American planners—many urban loyalists dedicated themselves to remedying the problem of congestion. First, the setback ordinance of 1916 limited the ability for buildings to shoot skyward, requiring instead that buildings decrease in bulk as they project upward, allowing light to reach the poor pedestrians at street level. In 1961, another policy was instituted, allowing builders to construct taller buildings if they created public plazas at the base of their towers. Interestingly enough, one of these privately owned public plazas is Zuccotti Park, the home to Occupy Wall Street.

In a delightful turn of events, Professor Ballon went on to explain the paradigm shift that is currently taking place as a result of the pressure for urban environments to increase sustainability. Now, she argues, we are shifting our view of congestion, or rather, our views of density. Density, she argues, is now a good thing. To stress this point, Professor Ballon explained that suburban households use 27% more electricity than urban household. But not only are we greener, we are more productive. Then she provided another shocking statistic: currently, over 50% of the world’s population live in urban areas, and by 2050, that number is projected to rise to 75%. With mega-cities, cities with more than 10,000 inhabitants, becoming increasingly dominant, America has fallen behind. New York is the only American mega-city; the rest are in Asia and Africa.

In the current age, density is now a good thing. However Americans, according to Professor Ballon, imagine urban centers with dense city-centers dissolving into low rise suburbs as you venture further from the epicenter. Ballon suggests that we, here in New York, have something that can serve as a model for future development: the grid.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the New York grid system. Though the grid has been used since ancient times and is surely not specific to New York, ours is different. Professor Ballon gives a few examples, most of which many of us take for granted. We use the grid to figure out which way is north, how far away something is, and to figure out how to navigate our city. Anyone who frequently relies on the New York grid system can attest that we feel lost in other cities when denied these conveniences.

Professor Ballon traced the journey of three commissioners in shaping the city we all love. Prior to their intervention, streets in lower Manhattan were laid out due to convenience in a haphazard way. The three commissioners sought to develop an organized system, so as not to inhibit the rapid growth of America’s largest port. The three mavericks proposed a system that would facilitate cheap building construction, easy land sales, and efficient transportation. The New York grid was born, thanks to the ambitious vision of these three commissioners.

To wrap up her talk, there was a question and answer period where Professor Ballon pointed out some of the most exciting aspects of the New York city grid. First, while many cities have square blocks, ours are oblong with no internal courtyards or alleyways. This means that all of the action takes place on the street, creating the dynamic city that Ballon described as “kaleidoscopic. Another interesting feature of the grid is its flexibility. Originally, the east-west bound streets were the main axis between the ports of the city. Now, we have completely changed the axis to a north-south bound one. The grid adapts to our requirements.

Professor Hilary Ballon’s insight into the complex implications of the grid system provide us, as New Yorkers, with food for thought. We live in one of the most vibrant and dynamic cities in the world and we owe this, in part, to the grid. The exhibit, The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811-2011, opens at the Museum of the City of New York on December 5. Cheers New York! We’ll see you there.

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