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Stephen Wheeler, a professor in the Department of Human Ecology at the University of California at Davis, has spent many hours parsing Google Satellite images, inspecting from above the suburbs just outside Boston, or the maze of streets at the center of Cairo, or the complex that is the Kremlin in Moscow. And there are, he has determined, 27 basic patterns in how we’ve built the world around us.
Of course, there’s the traditional urban grid, that pattern of compact blocks and right angles you’d recognize in central Philadelphia or the heart of Paris. Then there are the rectangular blocks of Manhattan, the superblocks of public housing projects, the curlicues of subdivisions, and the lonely lines of country roads. There is “rural sprawl,” distinct from country roads. And there are the particular shapes that mark, on a map, how we parcel land for factories or malls or cemeteries (“land of dead,” Wheeler calls this last typology.)
Consider not just the streets, but the scale of blocks between them and the division of land within each one, and you get an abstracted pattern like the one shown above, a patch of city as Piet Mondrian would draw it. That example is the “degenerate grid,” from Wheeler’s years-long research, some of which he has just published in the Journal of the American Planning Association. […]