There is much talk about how cities grow, and one of the most prevalent words used in these discussions is organic.

In a plan for a city one might see a gridiron proposed as a street framework, or a series of rectilinear forms, buildings or streets, that are orthogonal (generally, lots of straight lines and right angles).  In these cases responses commonly follow a path that leads to comments such as the plan is boring and needs more variation, the plan is too rigid and needs relief from the relentless grid, or most commonly, the plan is too rational and needs to be more organic. In almost every case, what is meant by organic is curvilinear, or at least, if you have to have straight lines might they not be so parallel.

New York is a rational, gridiron plan.  Paris is a series of generally straight streets that aren’t parallel, and London is a series of not so straight streets that are rarely parallel. In the formal sense of the word above, that organic somehow equals variation in form, it is probably accurate to say New York is least organic and London the most of the three examples.  But in the operational sense of the word, and what most people are trying to get to, is the idea that organic represents an incremental process of development over time, when things don’t appear to be, and in fact aren’t, all put in place at the same time. In this sense of the word, New York, Paris and London are all generally equal.  They have all evolved over time, with little in the way of planned use distribution. There are all kinds of different things juxtaposed to each other and the variation in all three cities is at the very highest end of the spectrum for large cities across the world.

An example of this is the land use plan for Manhattan. This plan is a clear and compelling representation of an organic growth pattern in terms of variation of use and variation of building form. It is hard, almost impossible, to walk down any street on the island and think that vast areas were driven by one hand, with one overarching imposition of style, use and execution. It was put together incrementally, against the backdrop of small twenty-five foot wide parcels over two centuries.  It is wholly organic, but it is also wholly rigid in its plan as an orthogonal framework. Clearly these two ideas are not mutually exclusive. A city can be both a relentless grid and at the same time organic.

Promoting Physical Activity And Health In Design

But most of the world isn’t New York, Paris or London. Most of the world is dendritic, cul-de-sac suburbs, or disconnected business parks, or retail/lifestyle centers, or multi-family clusters. Or, really, some variation on these themes. They were not planned or designed with the thought of being organic as an operational, or growth related, concept. Instead they were thought of as organic in form, all curved streets, disconnected from their surroundings. Unfortunately, this compositionally organic planning strategy creates a situation where the operationally organic process is almost impossible to realize. These are places where everything is of a kind, and each of these areas is accessed from an arterial, leading to a park where everything is office or retail or single-family residential or multi-family residential, or industrial, or … anything else, as long as it is all the same. And of course most of these places were designed to be organic.

Typical Suburban ‘Organic’ Land-Use Plan

This is evidenced through the same plan, the land-use plan, that describes New York. But here the areas covered by a single use are dozens, if not hundreds, of acres in size, where there is no opportunity to have the organically derived variation in New York, where the size of a single use can be as small as the original 25 x 100 foot parcel from the original Commissioner’s Plan. In these areas it is extremely difficult, as a practical matter, to provide for organic variation, and in most cases it is illegal.

In the end this is an important distinction, the two variations on the word organic, because it seems that what the planners and users of cities are really looking for is authentic, incremental, varied, organic growth; places that can grow over generations. But what gets substituted for this complex, evolving process is the instant gratification of the curved form. We might be better served to first understand the operationally organic, then move on to the form of the place.  And in the end there is nothing wrong with curved streets, as long as they work like Olmsted used them, not like we mostly use them today.