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US CITY FORM - Introduction


The towns and cities of the United States have a wondrous dynamic of city form.  Though most people might think that American towns and cities of similar size are relatively similar in form, the actuality of American city form is that of varied, dynamic, and ever changing patterns.  American society has always been one of growth, change, and a drive towards a better life, and these dynamics have been reflected in our towns and cities.  Additionally, like American history itself, there have been numerous historical influences on American city form that have impacted different regions of the United States in specific ways.  Such influences have included the regional impacts of the Dutch along the Hudson River, the British in the northeast and along the east coast, the French in the Great Lakes, along the Mississippi River, and especially in Louisiana, and the Spanish in parts of Florida, Texas, the Southwest, and California.

The dynamics of social settlement, the methods of land subdivision and surveying, and technological advancements in transportation and trade have probably had the most profound impacts on American town and city form, as these have been part and parcel to the great American economic engine that has built the wealthiest nation in history.  These changes can be traced across the nation in the various city form typologies that were used to create new towns as the country was founded and then as settlers pushed ever westward.   America's great opportunities and wealth have allowed for this dynamic of city form that has expressed the dreams and desires of those who settled new lands, and those who have pushed for the growth and continued development of their communities.

Each of our towns and cities, though made up of similar components such as houses, buildings, blocks, streets, highways, residential neighborhoods, commercial areas, industrial districts, etc., is the unique gathering of these components influenced by geography, local area history and land patterns, regional transportation networks, economics, politics, and the cumulative decisions of individuals and groups over time.  Just as the basic elements of the stars, planets, and galaxies create the unique, mesmerizing and endlessly varied features of the heavens, so are our towns and cities a mesmerizing collection of varied, beautiful and interesting forms.  This accumulation of form creates a unique identity, or "fingerprint", for each town and city, and this identity and how it developed are the primary focus of this blog.


The Pueblos
The oldest extant communities in the United States are not European settlements, but are instead the Native American pueblos of the Southwest, located primarily in New Mexico along with a few additional settlements in Arizona and extreme western Texas.  The historic pueblo form consists of simple adobe or stone living structures and associated food storage and ceremonial structures, often multiple stories and built adjacent to one another, loosely organized in groups of non-uniform blocks and often surrounding an open common area.  These settlements were then surrounded by loosely subdivided farm fields that supported the communities.  Though the tribes that lived in the pueblos likely maintained some element of trading, they did not have a commercial economic structure as found in modern American society.  The pueblo forms remained simple, without commercial buildings or districts as are found in American towns and cities.

Probably the best examples of these historic pueblo forms are found at Taos Pueblo and at Acoma in New Mexico, shown in the images below.  Acoma is also known as "Sky City" for being built atop a 300-foot high mesa to guard against potential invaders.

Taos Pueblo SurroundsTaos PuebloAcoma Pueblo Close

(left) Farmlands Surrounding Taos Pueblo, New Mexico (Image from US Geological Survey 7.5' Quadrangle, Taos, New Mexico, US Topo, 2011)
(top right) Taos Pueblo, New Mexico (Image from US Geological Survey 7.5' Quadrangle, Taos, New Mexico, US Topo, 2011)
(bottom right) Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico (Image from US Geological Survey 7.5' Quadrangle, Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico, US Topo, 2010, shading added by me)

In the post World War II era, many of the inhabitants of these communities began to move to more typical American-style housing nearby.  In a visit to Acoma several years ago, the Native American guide mentioned that typically only the older generations tended to remain in the pueblos.  As many of these historic pueblos are recognized as state, national, or World Heritage sites, their forms should remain into the future, even if the population no longer occupies them.

The Spanish
The Spanish influence is the oldest European influence on the continental United States.  The Spanish began exploration of Florida in the early 16th Century, and established settlements and missions in Florida and into Georgia and the Carolinas into the 17th Century.  Missions and settlements were also established in New Mexico starting at the end of the 16th Century, Arizona and Texas in the 17th Century, and California in the 18th Century.

The earliest European settlement in the continental United States that remains today is St. Augustine, Florida, which was founded in 1565 on an inlet just off of the east coast of Florida.

The Spanish have had an interesting influence on American town and city form, as well as regional land planning and land form.  The Spanish settlement of the New World was influenced by the Spanish Law of the Indies, which were legal rules that applied to all aspects of colonial life.  For new colonial towns, the Law required the establishment of a central open space, commonly referred to as a Plaza, which became the center of public life as well as a pasture for cattle owned by locals.  The Plaza became the location around which businesses would locate, and was often the location for government buildings and the Catholic Church, which dominated both government and social life in the colonies.

In the United States, the Spanish town form typically consists of a central rectangular plaza with the long axis generally oriented east-west.  The streets in the town would be laid out in a series of mostly rectangular blocks around the plaza.  However, surveying was not consistent, and the streets and blocks often vary in size, proportion, and orientation, which gives an interesting dynamic to this simple form.

Saint Augustine Streets
St. Augustine, Florida.  The original plaza is shown in yellow. (Image from US Geological Survey 7.5' Quadrangle, Saint Augustine, Florida, Digital Map Beta, 2009, shading added by me)

Santa Fe Streets
Santa Fe, New Mexico (Image from US Geological Survey 7.5' Quadrangle, Santa Fe, New Mexico, US Topo, 2011)

San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas. The original plaza is outlined in yellow, and the plaza today is shown in solid yellow. (Image from US Geological Survey 7.5' Quadrangle, San Antonio East, Texas, US Topo, 2010, shading added by me)

Socorro, New Mexico (Image from US Geological Survey 7.5' Quadrangle, Socorro, New Mexico, US Topo, 2010)

In addition to the colonial towns, the Spanish also influenced regional land patterns.  The Spanish created large parcels for ranches, called ranchos, throughout southern California, and these parcels were later subdivided into other parcels for agriculture and later subdivisions for housing and commercial development.  The boundaries for these ranchos varied in direction and orientation, and often meandered in interesting ways.  Many of the boundaries for these ranchos can still be traced through today's land patterns.

Los Angeles Area Ranchos
The Spanish Ranchos in Los Angeles County, California (from italianhall.org)

Orange County Ranchos
The Spanish Ranchos and later land subdivisions, Orange County, California (from The Old Spanish and Mexican Ranchos of Orange County, 1955, Title Insurance & Trust Co. of Los Angeles)

In New Mexico and Texas, the Spanish often subdivided lands along rivers for farmland.  This subdivision often consisted of long, mostly rectangular plots leading away from the river, allowing for the greatest number of farm parcels to have access to water.  These farm parcels can still be found today, and have also influenced land use patterns in towns and cities that have grown into these areas.

Spanish River Land Form in Texas
Spanish influenced land patterns along the San Antonio River, Bexar and Wilson Counties in Texas. (Image from US Geological Survey 7.5' Quadrangle, Saspamco, Texas, US Topo, 2010)

Other Spanish influences have included non-English land measurements, such as the use of leagues for length and areas, which can still be found for land parcels in Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.

The French
The French controlled large areas of North America prior to the dominance of the British and the establishment of the United States.  The primary influence on American towns and cities included the establishment of the important cities of New Orleans, St. Louis, and Detroit, along with other towns along the Mississippi River and its navigable tributaries, and other settlements in Michigan, Wisconsin, and the St. Lawrence/Great Lakes region of the Midwest and Northeast.  Additionally, the regional riverside land patterns of the lower Mississippi River region of Louisiana, along with similar isolated waterside areas in Michigan and Wisconsin, are the other lasting legacy of the French in America.  Like the Spaniards in Texas and New Mexico, the French subdivided farm parcels along rivers into long, narrow strips of land that radiated outward from the river.  In Louisiana, the rivers generally flowed in back-and-forth, looping patterns, which resulted in a dynamic series of fan-shaped patterns along the rivers.  As towns and cities grew into these parcels, their development forms followed these patterns, creating a colorful array of narrow strips and radiating patterns of blocks, most notable in New Orleans.

Louisiana Land Form
French influenced land pattern along the Mississippi River at Donaldsonville, Louisiana. (Compilation image from US Geological Survey 7.5' Quadrangles, Belle Rose, Carville, Donaldson, and Gonzales, Louisiana, Digital Map Beta, 2009)

New Orleans
New Orleans, Louisiana. The original town site, the French Quarter, is highlighted in yellow. (Image from US Geological Survey 7.5' Quadrangle, New Orleans East, Louisiana, Digital Map Beta, 2009, shading added by me)

The Dutch
The Dutch controlled the Hudson River valley and significant land areas of upper Delaware, far eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and western Connecticut through the mid-17th century.  The primary influence on American cities was the establishment of New Amsterdam (present New York City), Fort Orange (present day Albany, New York), along with numerous cities and towns along the Hudson River.  The present fan-pattern streets of lower Manhattan's Financial District can be traced to New Amsterdam, as can the loose street pattern of downtown Albany.

Lower Manhattan
The Dutch influenced street patterns of Lower Manhattan. (Image Copyright Geosthetics 2011)

Albany, New York (Compilation image from US Geological Survey 7.5' Quadrangles, Albany and South Troy, New York, US Topo, 2010)

The British
The British had the largest colonial influence on American towns, cities, and land development form, as Britain established the original 13 colonies that eventually became the Unites States of America.  This influence dominated the primary cities of the east coast, such as Boston with its dynamic street patterns; Charleston, South Carolina, with its quaintness and beauty; and the city planning milestones of Williamsburg, Virginia; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Savannah, Georgia.

Boston 1775
Boston, Massachusetts in 1775 (Sir Thomas Hyde Page, 1777, Library of Congress, retouched by Durova, image from Wikimedia Commons)

Charleston 1733
Original Charleston, South Carolina in 1733 (Herman Moll, 1733, Library of Congress, image from Wikimedia Commons)

Charleston SC 1898
Charleston, South Carolina in 1898 (George F. Cram, 1898, from Historical Maps of Alabama Collection, University of Alabama Department of Geography, image from Wikimedia Commons)

Frenchman's Map of Williamsburg, Virginia in 1781 (from A.D. White Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library, shading added by me).

Philadelphia Center City Blocks
Central Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, whose primary street grid, central square, and four neighborhood squares are based upon William Penn's original 1682 plan.  (Image Copyright Geosthetics 2011)

General James Oglethorpe's plan for Savannah, Georgia, 1770 (image from Wikimedia Commons, shading added by me)

The Americans
Once the United States obtained its independence and establish itself as a viable nation and military power, it began to focus on expansion and settlement of the lands west of the Appalachians.  This push westward, spurred by technological advancements in transportation such as the development of canals and railroads, allowed for an unprecedented founding of new communities, some by happenstance, many planned by those with a desire to profit from the growing settlement of new areas.  In order to spur this development in an orderly manner, the nation adopted a national method of land surveying, known as the Public Land Survey System.  This system basically drew a consistent grid across most of the nation west of the Eastern Seaboard states as well as west of Kentucky and Tennessee (this grid is also sometimes referred to as the Jeffersonian Grid, named for Thomas Jefferson, who spearheaded the development of the Public Land Survey System).  This grid is based upon 6-mile-square townships, each township divided into 36 1-mile-square sections.  This survey system is arguably the largest influence on land use form in the nation, if not the world.  This system allowed for the efficient sale and settlement of public lands, and helped spur the settlement of vast lands across the continent.  The influence on American towns and cities is significant, as new towns were placed within this system and expanding towns dealt with this previously-established land subdivision.

Area of the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) (image from US Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Interior Geological Survey, 1988, from Wikimedia Commons)

PLSS Township Range System
Township Components of the PLSS (image by nationalatlas.gov, from Wikimedia Commons)

The large number of new communities established during this expansion allowed for a wide array of plan types, the most typical being a town laid out in a uniform grid pattern.  However, numerous towns were laid out in other interesting ways, including the use of pre-planned public spaces, formal patterns, and eclectic layouts based upon the vision of the founder(s).  These forms will be further explored in the upcoming Typologies section of the Blog, and with the individual cities that will be explored in both the Blog and in the GeoPlaces section.

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