Greater Greater Washington

DC's odd-shaped public spaces needn't be awkward or neglected

Washington, DC's height limit, monumental core, and grand avenues make it unique among American cities. DC's plan, civic spaces, and prominent monuments befit a great national capital. L'Enfant designed his grand plan not just for the nation, but for the local community as well. Too often, however, many of the interesting local spaces created by that grand plan have been taken over by cars, fallen into neglect, or both.


Longfellow Monument. Photo by NCinDC.

Despite its grandeur, the L'Enfant plan isn't universally loved. Matt Yglesias takes issues with DC's "triangles of doom," while citing Bostonian Noah Kazis' learned love for DC's grid and avenues over Boston's colonial mishmash of streets. Yglesias notes:

I think there's definitely something charming about metro Boston's tangled web of streets. And there's clearly also something good and practical about a regular grid. But I really don't think there's any case at all for what we've done in DC in terms of super-imposing diagonal boulevards on a basically rectilinear grid.
Yglesias touches on three major aspects of city design: the "organic" pattern, the grid, and the diagonal. "Organic" networks, such as Boston, are really not organic so much as they are unplanned. This is not always the case, as there are plenty of planned cities designed to look like "organic" street networks.

DC, on the other hand, is clearly a planned city, at least within the confines of the L'Enfant Plan. Outside of the L'Enfant city, Adams Morgan exhibits plenty of "organic" patterns, but the iconic streetscape for Washington is definitely L'Enfant's radial avenues superimposed on a rectilinear grid.

Yeglesias misses one clear case for DC's avenues. We can never forget that Washington, DC is not just a city, but the capital of the United States, and the urban design of the city reflects that fact. Spiro Kostof, in his book The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History, calls this kind of capital monumentality, "The Grand Manner." The Grand Manner, Kostof writes, "is not the currency of little towns." Indeed, in his chapter on the Grand Manner, an aerial photo of Washington, DC occupies the entire initial page. These are not supposed to be purely functional streets, though Daniel Burnham and other practitioners of the City Beautiful would argue they are helpful.

DC's diagonal avenues are an important element of this grand aesthetic. They provide vistas to key buildings and monuments, and though geometric in plan, they also respond to key travel patterns in the region, such as Connecticut Avenue and New York Avenue. These diagonal streets are also not unique to Washington. Chicago, Detroit, and others superimpose important diagonal streets across urban grids. In modern function, streets such as Broadway in New York predate the grids they bisect, but nevertheless function similarly today.

Creating small triangles, nooks, and crannies within the grid is a beneficial consequence of diagonal avenues. From the national perspective, these spaces filled a need for locations for monuments. From the local perspective, L'Enfant (and later Ellicott) placed a public circle or square to serve as the focus for each section of the city. Likewise, the radial avenues connect these parts of the city to each other with both direct lines of communication and transportation.

However, Yglesias isn't convinced. He notes this kind of planning "leads to lots of very weird intersections." As an example, he cites the intersection of New York Avenue, H St, and 13th Street NW as a confusing intersection for drivers and pedestrians alike. Tellingly, Yglesias uses a Google Maps image to illustrate this.


Left: Yglesias' Google Map. Right: L'Enfant Plan detail. Note the lack of street design within the squares and public spaces. Image from NCPC.

The Google map, however, focuses on the auto circulation routes, not the public space. Neither the L'Enfant Plan nor the Ellicott Plan delineates traffic lanes or vehicular circulation. Instead, those plans focus on defining the street as a public space. Likewise, most of DC's circles and squares draw their definition not from the traffic patterns of the streets, but from the blocks that surround them.

The awkward intersections of auto traffic are a relatively recent occurrence, not a hallmark of the plan. Yglesias understands this, at least at an intuitive level, since he made a great suggestion several days later about improving traffic and pedestrian space within one of L'Enfant's many squares. These kind of discussions are not new to DC, as many squares from L'Enfant's plan do not function as squares at all. Traffic bisects them at Eastern Market and Potomac Avenue, for example, and proposed changes would open up these spaces.

Likewise, there are many triangles and small parks at the intersections of DC's radial avenues and the grid. Some house interesting public spaces, while others are substantially underutilized. Since we have them, it's up to DC to make use of these small spaces. Yglesias notes:

But worst of all they create these horrible dead spaces when the wedges between the various streets are too small to put a city block on. Every once in a while this process results in a "triangle park" that's actually nice and used for something (the part at 1st, R, and Florida has nice synergy with Big Bear Cafe and the Bloomingdale Farmer's Market) but the typical triangle park isn't really used for anything and many of them scarcely deserve to be called parks.

Green space and public space are good things, but they're really only good if the spaces are usable and used in practice by the people who live and work in the area. That requires them to be located and sized for real reasons ("this would be a good place for a park") and not just used to fill up awkward gaps in a street grid.

Indeed, many of these triangles are underutilized. However, this is a problem of programming, not of design. Kostof notes in a video of a 1991 lecture series accompanying his book that L'Enfant's plan specifically avoided those cast-off spaces Yglesias worries about. Instead, each public square was to be programmed as a focus for a neighborhood. They were not just used to fill in the gaps of the street grid, and they need not be treated as such today.

Instead, the challenge is to re-program these spaces, as exemplified by the Bloomingdale Farmers' Market. Not every space needs to be active or monumental, but there are plenty of opportunities to improve these spaces and enhance DC's public spaces.

Cross-posted at City Block.

Alex Block is an urban planner in Washington, DC. Alex's planning interests focus on the interactions between transportation, land use, and urban design. He also blogs at City Block and currently lives in Hill East. 

Comments

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I think a good addition to the aforementioned park in Bloomingdale would be to 'decommission' R St between Florida and 1st and enlarge the park and give the farmer's market a nicer home. The few homeowners might not like the lack of access, but once they park is there, there would be a freakin' park at their front door! It would also remove a scary intersection where folks try to dart across RI along R when the light timing makes that challenging.

You make a good point that its not the design thats the problem, but the use. I think we should start to focus more on people that cars.

by dano on Jul 24, 2009 2:09 pm • linkreport

As a former resident of both South Florida (Miami and Fort Lauderdale,) and Metro Atlanta, the ordered grid of DC is much, MUCH preferred to the cowpaths-turned-roads from Boston and Notlanta. Before addressing the underused "odd-shaped public spaces," from a mere "getting around easily" standpoint, the grid is king. Even in car-centric South Florida, where the western portions of said grid are huge eight-lane "local roads" that connect to sprawl, it's incredibly easy to get around (indeed, in Miami Dade, they feature the quadrant system as well and as most roads are numbered...it's awesome to navigate this huge metro-mess. Here's an example: the address is 123 NW 1st Street. You're in the NorthWest quadrant. Off 1st Street and 1st Avenue. House number 23.) Both Atlanta and Boston are next to impossible to navigate because of their winding roads that don't form a grid...and in Atlanta's case, since they are all car-centric, whatever "charm" they had is long gone.

Regarding the odd-shaped public spaces and squares...I think they should all be used! And ideally they would help spread the "monumental core" out into the city.

by Aaron on Jul 24, 2009 2:15 pm • linkreport

I fully agree with Ny Ave and H street; Is it so damn hard to have streets run straight I cant think of one major road in DC that runs straight from end to end in the city except for 16th street NW.

Why does every single main road and many side streets, run straight for a few blocks then curve east, west etc. ( Mass Ave, 14th Street, NY Ave, H Street, Florida Ave, Bladenburg RD, Eastern & Southern Ave, North & South Capitol Streets, etc) then back straight and curve again.

Then there are streets that end in the middle of nowhere and popup again miles or blocks away (North Capitol above Fort Totten, Eastern Ave in NE, Southern Ave in SE, Central Ave in NE, Georgia Ave, 7th Street and many more).

Instead of making all these streets that line up to no type of grid or drop off and pick up somewhere else, why didn they just makes those different street.

What were they designing the streets with a compass instead of a ruler.

by Kk on Jul 24, 2009 4:52 pm • linkreport

And the quadrants should have been redrawn ( I know they are there because of the capital) after Washington expanded beyond the planned ciy because it looks retarded for lack of a better word.

It looks like the person who did the rest of the borders of NW/NE and SW/SE was drunk because of how North and South capitol curve all over the place.

I just want to know if the area was designed as a diamond hell the heck weren't North/East/South Capitol built along the four points

by Kk on Jul 24, 2009 5:02 pm • linkreport

kk-that's one of the quirky charms of DC!

by Bianchi on Jul 24, 2009 7:44 pm • linkreport

The diagonal streets are also what make DC such a lousy town for biking. In most grid layout cities, if you don't want to ride on the trafficky, high-speed main thoroughfare, you can ride on a nice quiet side street parallel to it a block or two away, with a lower speed limit. DC is unfortunately designed such that no matter what you do, you will ultimately end up dumped on one of the horrible diagonal "freeways" with 10,000 fuming motorists. (And no left turn signs at every intersection where it would be logical to make a left turn... for miles.)

by Erica on Jul 25, 2009 7:28 am • linkreport

Erica, I have no problem with that. If I don't feel like dealing with avenue traffic, I just zig-zag on the grid. If I'm in a hurry, I join in the traffic. (This includes stopping for red lights. One nice thing about the heavily trafficked avenues is that the clowns who run red lights and/or ride the wrong way tend to stay off them.)

Oh, and the avenues that have lots of no-left-turn signs also have lots of provisions for making net left turns by first turning right, something I noticed partly because, as a bike rider, this means I have to share the lane with (ultimately) left-turning as well as right-turning cars -- but it can also be nice to be able to make left turns without first working my way, in traffic, over to the left-hand lane.

by davidj on Jul 26, 2009 9:18 pm • linkreport

KK, most of the curves you talk about in the L'Enfant City are the result of retrofitting the grid for automobile traffic. The best example I can think of is the intersection of H and New York Ave. NW in downtown. H curves funny due to traffic engineers trying to make an intersection that doesn't cause auto collisions.

However, if you stand on H St. and look to the east you'll notice that while the road bed curves, the right of way doesn't.

Another example that was clearly a part of the L'Enfant plan would be McPherson and Farragut Squares. In McPherson Square, 15th St. changes places. Vermont Avenue is a diagonal going from southwest to northeast. In order to accomodate the diagonal, 15th street "switches." Coming from the south, you have to diagonally cross the square from the southeast corner to the northwest corner in order to stay on 15th street.

This is something that is inherently obvious when you're on foot. It is not obvious when you're in a car. Remember that the L'Enfant City wasn't built for automobiles. It was built for people. Cars are guests there so when one is a motorist it seems confusing because it wasn't meant to be perceived at 30 miles per hour.

I've talked to a lot of people who think that DC is just awful because it's a mess to drive in. I immediately tell them that's what makes it so great to LIVE in. The two are antithetical. Cars aren't antithetical to great places. Cars are machines, tools to do a task. Building human settlements for cars rather than people, however, makes a place an inhuman traffic nightmare. Most get it after I explain it or after taking them for a walk in places like downtown, Logan, or Capitol Hill.

by Cavan on Jul 27, 2009 9:43 am • linkreport

Cavan,

You make some very good observations! Incidentally, we nowadays views the squares and circles as 'parks surrounded by roadway' ... but when designed, there would have been no differntiation between 'park' and 'road way' ... the entire area would have been paved (or more likely dirt) and used by people on foot, people in carriages or on horseback, and even vendors selling produce or just about anything ... Like you say, they weren't meant to be viewed going 30 mph. They, like our roadways, were also multipurposable. You see remants of the idea when you go to Europe and in many towns find the these circles and squares with cobblestones from building line to building line ... and 'maybe' a roadway signed through it and otherwise the rest of the square being used maybe as a cordoned off park, or more likely, for parking of vehicles.

by Lance on Jul 27, 2009 12:20 pm • linkreport

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