In the Introduction to Figure Ground, we saw how this tool can understand the relationship of buildings to streets. But it can also be helpful to understand the structure of entire towns and cities. At a larger scale we can quickly understand the form of a city by contrasting the streets from everything else.
In the famous map of New York City’s Manhattan Island, we can clearly see its growth pattern. The irregular 1624 settlement of New Amsterdam is at the south end of the island. It was served by a highway in Dutch called Breede weg, literally translated in English to what is now called Broadway. You can easily pick it out, because 200 years later, Broadway remains the lone exception to the regular cartesion grid applied over the remainder of the island by the 1811 Commissioner’s Plan.
Olmsted and Vaux’s 1857 plan for Central Park carved out 843 acres in the center of Manhattan as a natural relief of urbanity for the citizens, seen in the graphical relief of the long dark rectangle in the figure ground.
My little five minute sketch is hardly able to do justice to Manhattan, one of the most popular figure ground urban studies. Many detailed hardline ones are widely available online if you Google image search “figure ground manhattan”.
Next we’ll take a look at Philadelphia.