Manila Plan: Modifying the Gridiron Street System

One of the repeating element in city planning throughout history is the gridiron system. It is a simple method of dividing land into equal lots for speculation and quick sale, and allows flexibility in expansion. Before Daniel Burnham’s time, the early American cities did not begin with a grid plan, yet it started to be utilized due to its orderly benefits. The city founder William Penn praised the grid design, as it is a means of protecting overcrowding, fire, and disease, which plagued European cities.

Apart from the advantages of safety and efficiency in organization, the disadvantage of the grid was that it is inefficient for traffic and does not provide focal points for community functions. Hence in Penn’s plan for Philadelphia in 1682 (Figure 1), he incorporated a large plaza in the center and a square in each corner in the grid system. Inspired by the English precedents, New England planning also had a grid system which included a central “commons” to provide a focus for civic life. Pierre L’Enfant’s plan for Washington, D.C. in 1791 (Figure 2) attempt to transplant Italian and French Renaissance and Baroque features such as radial boulevards and monumental vistas in the siting of large buildings.

When Burnham was involved in Manila in 1905, he also participated in the Chicago Plan with Edward Bennett in the same year. Before the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Chicago had a gridiron street pattern, a haphazard lakefront, congested streets, and insufficient recreational facilities. Burnham and Bennett were determined to give Chicago something more than just the orderliness of a gridiron, the mere addition of public commons of squares and Haussmann’s widening and aligning of streets and addition of park systems for breathing spaces. Burnham and Bennett provided six major changes for Chicago, one of which was a systematic arrangement of the streets and avenues within the city to facilitate traffic. The plan (Figure 3) shows the designation of three classes of streets: 1) local for residential and neighborhood traffic, 2) avenues for longer distances, and 3) landscaped boulevards which connects Chicago’s new and existing parks to each other. The first system was to apply these new streets on the existing grid for practical reasons, and second system was to use existing diagonals as well as to make new ones by connecting the existing streets. All was organized so that the main arteries facilitate movement surrounding the civic center located at the intersection (Figure 10 and 11).

Manila, despite the different setting, display similarities in Burnham’s planning in Chicago (Figure 12). Manila’s need for more open and convenient transportation routes in the existing areas of gridiron street arrangement prompted Burnham to again recommend superimposed diagonal arteries radiating from the civic core to all the outlying sections. As the efficiency of the original grid was not enough to achieve the fluid circulation, easy communication and accessible public nodes, Burnham modified the grid through the introduction of street hierarchy and establishment of public programs. This arrangement formed the fundamental structure of the planning where the remaining waterway system, railroads and parks could be additionally designed and complete the planning.

Figure 1: Plan for Pennsylvania © 1682, William Penn
Figure 2: Plan for Washington D.C. © 1791, Pierre L’Enfant.
Figure 3: Plan of Chicago, the Complete System of Street Circulation © 1979, The Art Institute of Chicago.
Figure 4: Plan of Chicago, Plan of a Park proposed at the Noth branch of Chicago River and Graceland Ave. © 1979, The Art Institute of Chicago
(Left) Figure 5: Diagram of the City Center, General Location of Existing Freight Yards and Railroad Lines © 1979, The Art Institute of Chicago. (Center) Figure 6: Diagram of the City, Complete System of Inner Circuits © 1979, The Art Institute of Chicago. (Right) Figure 7: Diagram of City Center, Proposed Arrangement of Railroad Passenger Stations © 1979, The Art Institute of Chicago.


Figure 8: Michigan Ave North of the Chicago River © 1925, Chicago Architectural Photography Co.
Figure 9: Chicago Proposed Boulevard to Connect the North and South Sides of the River © 1979, Jules Guerin
Figure 10: Elevation Showing the Group of Buildings Constituting the Proposed Civic Center © 1979, Fernand Janin
Figure 11: Chicago Section Looking North, Taken Through Proposed Grand Axis of the City, Showing the Civic Center and Grant Park © 1979, The Art Institute of Chicago.
Figure 12: Plans for the Development of Manila © 1905, Daniel Burnham

(For realized public buildings and institutions, please refer to the images in the post “The Built Public Institutions of Manila Plan”)


Blackford M.G., (1993) The Lost Dream: Businessmen and City Planning on the Pacific Coast, 1890-1920. Ohio State University Press.
Burnham, D.H., and Bennett, E.H. (1993) Plan of Chicago. Edited by Charles Moore. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
Chappell, S. (1980) The Plan of Chicago: 1909-1979. The Art Institute of Chicago: Burnham Library of Architecture
Torres, C.E. (2010) The Americanization of Manila, 1898-1921. The Philippines: The University of the Philippines Press


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