Category Archives: Figure Ground


We’ve been looking at historical U.S. town plans, mostly based on some type of a grid. The plan structured growth so that development followed the grid. Parks and squares were designed into this form as the primary consideration for public space and a natural relief from the urban condition.

In Boston, on the other hand, centuries of expanding its isolated land mass developed haphazardly and left little room for the park. This problem was resolved by Fredrick Law Olmsted in the Emerald Necklace. In his scheme, the parks were found after the urban condition had already been established. In figure ground terms, they were leftovers.

Sketch of Levittown, NY

Sketch of Levittown, NY

Fast forwarding to about 70 years later, the car had become the most common mode of transportation, World War II had been won, and millions of GIs were home and ready to resume life with a baby boom and houses funded by the government’s gratuitous mortgage rates. It took William Levitt and his sons less than two years to capitalize on the opportunity and break ground on his first ambitious neighborhood on Long Island for 17,000 homes, named eponymously, Levittown.

Much has been written about the eventual four developments that Levitt & Sons created and the countless more that were inspired by them. (This architect was raised in two.) The social impact of Levittown was profound. A few references regarding these cultural consequences are linked in the Notes below.

For now, let’s see what we can discern from just the plan itself.

Initial plan of Levittown, NY

Initial plan of Levittown, NY

Obviously, Levittown had no grid. The town plan had been redefined into a weave of roads that reduced the lengths of sightlines and created random variations among homes that were very similar. Notice that no single road through the neighborhood connects to more than one main road. Shortcuts through the neighborhood to save time were discouraged by the design. Driving to nearly any home required at least one or two turns if not half a dozen or more.

Minimizing long, straight through roads also reduced the speed of traffic and its accompanying road noise and danger to children playing in yards. (And the street.) This is interesting, because the long road at the top of the plan was the Old Motor Parkway and the first motor parkway, a concoction of William K. Vanderbilt Jr. used for auto racing.2

Instead of a town center, the neighborhood was not connected to the rest of humanity other than via highway. Like a commune, the weave implied a more inward focus and fenced off outsiders. At the same time, new technologies in the car, radio, telephone, and television connected citizens more abstractly instead of face-to-face on the community’s streets. Visual connections were minimized in favor of more abstract ones.

Even internally within the neighborhood, spacial connections were less formal. Houses never faced each other directly across a street. Neighboring lots were usually oblique at the front face to some degree and angular next door.

Levittown, New York today, via Google maps

The occasional school or park was circuitously secluded as far from the main roads as possible. Test this in the map above. How many turns does it take to get from the main road to the school in the center?

Planning like this reduced outsider use of parks since the were difficult to find. Theoretically, this also increased the neighborhood’s sense of ownership. But the same design disconnected the larger community and its services, like police, fire department, school buses, and even the residents themselves. The developer’s offices on the outskirts had to help new residents find their homes several times a day!

Clearly, the most important thing to the Levitts was the maximization of lots along roads that could easily be appended and woven around minor obstructions like retainage ponds, power lines, and existing motorways. You can see directly in the plan that financial interests outweighed any other social or community ones. This certainly made economic sense for the developer since no one would pay for any unsold areas. But compared to Savannah, Levittown and its imitators made obvious sacrifices of public space and parklands for thousands of residential units and private yards.

Would you expect the developer, with the primary financial interest in success, to have a romantic view of the planned neighborhood?

Levittown, 1947. A Report to Home Builders


1. The Long Island Motor Parkway, by Howard Kroplick and Al Velocci, Vanderbilt Cup Races.

2. Levittown: The Imperfect Rise of the American Suburbs, by Crystal Galyean.

3. Levittowners, a site dedicated to Levittown, Pennsylvania.

Emerald Necklace

In Manhattan, we saw the visual impact of Frederick Law Olmsted’s expansive, 778 acre Central Park. When he came to Boston, the original Boston Common, established near the beginnings of the peninsula’s settlement, was only 50 acres. Boston’s fills had leveled its hills into its bays to grow landmass. The result was an ever stagnating water flow from the rivers that fed these bays.

Emerald Necklace Sketch

Boston’s Emerald Necklace, sketch after Frederick Law Olmsted drawing

Olmsted’s challenge was to create a larger, more interesting park. But a single, rectangular park would not be possible in Boston due to the irregular growth pattern. Although the Back Bay had a regular pattern like New York, it had already been developed with buildings.

The genius of Olmsted’s idea was to use the restoration and revitalization of the rivers and marshes as the parks themselves. This, in a city that had leveled its natural hills to fill its natural waterways!

Beginning about 1878, Olmsted finalized a design to link the original Boston Common with the large 527 acre Franklin Park (both in forest green). A long necklace of parks was developed as a series of varied emeralds totaling 1,100 acres.

Emerald Necklace Sketch

Emerald Necklace major components

Through the Public Garden adjacent the Common, a great parkway was created as the central avenue through the even grid of the back bay (orange) adjacent the Charles River (blue). Then, a long, varied park system (yellow) would meander along the Muddy River from the Fens1 to Jamaica Pond, the Arboretum, and a tree-lined roadway connection to Franklin Park.

Although not a singular recognizable form in the figure of Boston like Central Park stood in Manhattan, the resulting park reflected a similar variation of scenes, distinct moods, and landscape features strung through the city. In their course, the Emerald Necklace also successfully managed storm and wastewater and revitalized severely weakened marshes.

The strategy seems like such an obvious solution to the problem. But at a time just after the Civil War, when the country had barely conquered steam power and the electric light bulb, Olmsted’s ideas were a challenge to the industrialized mindset of the country.

They became the inspiration for a very common planning scheme seen throughout North Carolina today…


1. Softball question: Any guesses to what major league sports park would be located beside a path through the Fens?

2. There is a good one-hour documentary on Olmsted you can watch online for free at the page dedicated to it: Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America. The particular segment on Boston begins at 42:12, but watch the whole piece for connections in Olmsted’s work to Central and Prospect parks, Buffalo, parkways, Tacoma, and the Biltmore House.

Figure Ground Boston

This is an article in the middle of a series on figure ground studies. Currently, we’re looking at large scale developments, namely cities, to understand how relationships of space and form can be manipulated to achieve design goals. Previously, Savannah was noted for its planned developmental pattern around a concept of smaller units, called wards.

The city of Boston is a great study in contrast to Savannah because it was developed without a central plan. Boston grew out of need for defense and in response to geographical and cultural interests for trade. It is unique because of its centuries of earthmoving in vast areas surrounding the original town.

Boston Sketch

Boston Sketch

Born as the defensible Shawmut Peninsula about 1630, a single road crossed the isthmus into the town through fortifications. A second road across the opposite neck to Copps Hill intersected the first in the center of a settlement of church, government, and trade. Before long, warfs began extending from the seaward edges. One, named “Long Warf,” was fully a third of a mile long created to bridge out into deeper water for the largest ships.

Boston Fills

Boston Fills

The crowded peninsula quickly began to grow through warfs and solid landfills (diagrammed in red). Its five hills, once advantageous for defense, were leveled and used as material to fill the adjacent water. By 1880, numerous bays had been filled.

The marshes and upstream rivers began to stagnate. Which leads to Boston’s most interesting planned feature…

Figure Ground Savannah

In previous sketches, we looked at Figure Ground and the city plans of Manhattan, Philadelphia, and Raleigh. Particularly, these cities were structured around parks and streets as public rooms.

Savannah Sketch

Savannah Sketch

Savannah was also structured around parks, but with one addition. In James Oglethorpe’s 1730 plan, the form was considered a replicating pattern of neighborhoods. It was not simply a finished, completed city plan. It was more than a simple, abstract grid.

Oglethorpe created wards as the fundamental unit in his plan of Savannah. Each was a central open square enclosed by a balance of public and private lots. This grouping of properties was linked to corresponding farming areas outside of the city so that agricultural sizes were directly associated with urban ones.

Savannah Ward

Savannah Ward

Within a single ward, tything lots of ten were arranged with houses facing the street, their back yards abutted along a small access alley. Each grouping of ten houses had a half-size trust lot intended for civic buildings. In this design, the basic proportion of park to private dwellings was approximately 1:4. As you can see in the diagram, the park was balanced to public property by their adjacency. This allowed adjustments to be made between the two without affecting the residential blocks.

Wards represented the city’s smallest unit of neighborhood. It was a clear visualization of relationships and interdepencies for help and defense. Oglethorpe aspired to a design that was equitable and egalitarian. The grid implied a democratic structure. But emphasizing the common person as a central building block within the grid meant that no governor could gain a higher advantage or position than anyone else.

Figure Ground, Savannah

Figure Ground, Savannah

Although Manhattan’s grid implied extensible growth, Savannah’s plan 180 years earlier added a higher order of organic, sustainable groupings without a theroetical limit. The result was smaller scale livable clusters that still hold charm today. From the original four, a total of 24 wards were eventually created, most of which are essentially visible in the map of Savannah today, almost 300 years later.

For more information, you can find several excellent articles on Wikipedia’s Oglethorpe Plan and Squares of Savannah, Georgia for more details. Plenty of diagrams for Savannah’s plan can be found through Google image search “savannah oglethorpe plan”

Next, we’ll take a look at the development of a third major city during the time of America’s founding.

Raleigh Plan

Figure Ground Raleigh

The previous Figure Ground Philadelphia is important to North Carolinians because the capital of Raleigh was modeled after it.

Raleigh Sketch

Raleigh Sketch

William Christmas, also a Senator from Franklin County, surveyed the area and developed the town plan based on Thomas Holme’s 1682 plan for Philadelphia, although at about half the scale.

(As an historical aside, the actual site for the capital involves numerous interesting political wranglings over the course of 22 years. The North Carolina General Assembly was determined to move the state’s center of government from Tryon Palace in New Bern on the coast to a less British and more secure location inland and central to the state. Beginning in 1770, Joel Lane1 lobbied the Assembly to create Wake County and it was established in 1771, named for Governer Tryon’s wife, Margaret Wake. Lane’s plantation became the location for the Assembly ten years later in 1781. Then in Hillsborough in 1788, the Assembly resolved to set the capital in Wake County. Through a series of meetings at Isaac Hunter’s Tavern2 in 1792, it was finally decided to purchase a thousand acres from none other than Joel Lane himself on which to incorporate the capital city.)

Raleigh is one of few cities designed from the beginning as a capital. Like Philadelphia, it is organized in a grid. Raleigh’s grid was bounded on all four sides with streets named for the cardinal directions.

Figure Ground, Raleigh

Figure Ground, Raleigh

Also like Philadelphia, Raleigh’s plan included four outlying squares around a central one. Of the original five squares, four still exist today. They were named for North Carolina political leaders of the day:

  • Union Square is in the center, now called Capitol Square.
  • To the Southwest is Nash Square, named for Abner Nash, the state’s second governor.
  • To the Southeast is Moore Square, named for NC Attorney General and US Supreme Court judge Alfred Moore.
  • Burke Square is to the Northeast and is now occupied by the Governor’s Mansion. It was named for the third governor, Thomas Burke.
  • Caswell Square is the missing Northwest corner park currently occupied by a number of state buildings.3 It was named for the first and fifth governor, Richard Caswell.

One more interesting parallel to Philadelphia’s plan are Raleigh’s four central streets radiating out from the capitol. In Philadelphia, these central streets are on the grid. But in Raleigh, they bisect it, creating short nearly half width blocks on either side. Each street was directed to a cardinal direction and named for an important North Carolina town in that direction:

  • To the north, Halifax was the location for the Halifax Resolves calling for independence in April 12, 1776, the lower of the two dates on the North Carolina flag.
  • To the south, Fayetteville was the settlement newly named for the French general and hero of the American Revolutionary War.
  • To the east, New Bern was the largest city in the state and had served as North Carolina’s capital up until Raleigh.
  • To the west, Hillsborough was the site of several North Carolina congressional and General Assembly meetings, as well as a pre-revolutionary Regulator revolt between 1768-1772.

Notes and References

1. Joel Lane’s house and museum still stands today one block south of Saint Mary’s School, south of West Morgan Street.

2. Isaac Hunter’s Tavern was originally located where the North Raleigh Hilton now stands on Wake Forest Road. Mark Turner’s search is the original discussion I found that spurred his final conclusion.

3. Caswell Square is shown on the famous 1872 map of Raleigh as occupied by a large school for the deaf.

4. Historical Raleigh From Its Foundation in 1792, by Moses N. Amis of the Raleigh Bar, 1902. Accessed at Google Books on 2015-12-09.