On Grids: Denver

One of the things I’m most interested in is the story of how cities and other developments were built the way they were. Grids, I think, are a great at revealing these stories. While they’re intended to give a sense of rationalism and logic to city structure, North American city grids still have many quirks. These are what make them interesting. An endless sea of square blocks in every direction sounds oppressive.

If you look closely at any city in North America that’s based on a grid, you’ll find inconsistencies, winding roads and other oddities. Or, in some cases, you’ll find competing grids. Denver is a great example of that.

Settled in the 1850s at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek, it would later become a major metro area and the heart of the Front Range Urban Corridor. Denver’s original grid was designed as a set of diagonals1. It was actually founded shortly after Auraria2, which was settled immediately to the west, across Cherry Creek. Their grids actually (almost) align. You’ll find a slight wander in the streets, and a more in depth explanation here.

As time went on, the rest of metro Denver was developed in accordance with the Jefferson Grid 3, or the Public Lands Survey System (PLSS). Because of this, you’ll see that Denver’s downtown grid clashes with the North/South orientation of the PLSS. You can see this especially where Colfax and Broadway intersect near the capitol.

You can see Denver’s original grid clashing with the PLSS. To the northwest, it dissolves into the developments along the South Platte River and Interstate 25.

This comes at a cost, with confusing five way intersections, and other inconsistencies. Despite that, it’s these developments that can give a city character and history. It breaks up the monotony of a perfect grid, and if anything, can give a city imperfect, human qualities. But, zoom out beyond downtown, and it’s obvious how much the PLSS shaped the rest of metro Denver’s development patterns.

  1. There’s actually no official ruling on whether or not these streets run north/south or east/west, cause, well, diagonal. ↩︎
  2. Which was later absorbed by Denver. ↩︎
  3. Also the handle of one of my favorite Instagram feeds. For a cool take on how the PLSS shaped America, take a look. ↩︎
On Grids: Denver

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