It’s often said—at least it was before the age of Google Maps—that you can find your way around New York as long as you can count. The city’s systematic grid of numbered streets and avenues, imposed in 1811, reduced navigation to elementary mathematics. Sure, there’s a certain charm and nostalgia to the historical names below Houston Street, but next time you’re lost down there, good luck charging your smartphone with sentimentality.
New York wasn’t the first major U.S. city to configure its streets with numbers. Philadelphia’s 1682 plan used numbered streets, as did the 1791 plan for Washington, D.C. (The global origin dates back to a 1281 plan in the British town of New Winchelsea.) Together these three places set a precedent for spatial logic and efficiency that many American cities came to follow—roughly half of them, according to the “first comprehensive, nationwide account” of street numbering.
“There are a number of potential reasons why so many cities and towns in the United States adopted the spatial practice of street numbering,” geography scholar Reuben Rose-Redwood of the University of Victoria tells CityLab via email. “The most obvious explanation is that it was an effort to satisfy the utilitarian desire for spatial legibility by making it harder to get lost, even in a city where one had never been before.”
For their analysis, Rose-Redwood and independent scholar Lisa Kadonaga have been collecting data since 2007 on the street systems of all 22,930 incorporated places in the U.S. They assessed these cities on six metrics, including the existence of street numbering, its extent across the city, and any resemblance to the plans of Philadelphia (one numbered direction), New York (two numbered directions), or D.C. (directional quadrants). Only local streets counted—not numbered highways.
Rose-Redwood and Kadonaga reported their results in The Professional Geographer. Here’s a breakdown of their key findings.
All told, 49.6 percent of U.S. cities have “some form” of street numbering, according to the researchers—or 11,373 of the country’s incorporated places. About three-fifths of these areas, 61 percent, had streets numbered through a “significant portion of the downtown core.”
The vast majority of cities with street numbering—79 percent—followed Philadelphia’s lead in using this structure for just one direction. (These 8,985 places make up roughly 39 percent of all the incorporated places in the U.S.) The other 21 percent of cities with numbered streets took a cue from New York and used the strategy in more than one direction of the grid.
About 10 percent of all incorporated places used the directional quadrants, and roughly 10 percent used lettered streets—two hallmarks of the system in Washington, D.C.
Rose-Redwood says the street plans of Philadelphia and New York certainly served as models for other places, and it’s possible that some localities made a conscious effort to emulate a specific city grid style. But what most likely happened over time, he says, is that cities and towns across the country came to see numbered streets as part of the “standard toolkit” for planners.
“By the mid-19th century,” he says, “the numbering of streets seems to have become the taken-for-granted accompaniment of the grid-plan town.”
Generally speaking, street numbering gets more common across the U.S. moving from East to West. Just 19 percent of cities in New England can make the claim, followed by the Mid-Atlantic (40 percent) and the South (43 percent). Street numbers become the majority once you cross into the Midwest (54 percent), with prevalence increasing in the Southwest (60 percent) and West (72 percent).
At an individual state level, Vermont boasts the fewest places with street numbers: 6 percent. Utah rests at the other end of the spectrum, with 92 percent, according to the study.
Rose-Redwood says the reason street numbering is less prevalent in New England is that many towns in this region predated the national survey system established in 1785. Westward expansion after that date followed a standardized settlement pattern famously characterized by coordinated grids. “Clearly the Land Ordinance of 1785 had a significant influence on the gridding and numbering of streetscapes west of the Ohio River,” he says.
The geography of grid inspiration is more erratic (as shown in the maps in the previous section). The Mid-Atlantic has the highest prevalence of Philadelphia-style street numbers, at 91 percent, with the West actually having the lowest share, at 67 percent. On the individual state level, Minnesota (99 percent) and Utah (96 percent) overwhelmingly favor New York’s street style, with Philadelphia claiming at least a 90 percent share in 16 states.
Even New York state seems to prefer Philadelphia’s style: nearly 87 percent of its cities with street numbers follow the Philly system.
When it comes to street numbering, population size matters. Rose-Redwood and Kadonaga found that larger cities were more likely than smaller ones to use numbers for their street systems.
Every incorporated place they studied with a population of at least 500,000 people had numbered streets (and 61 percent had lettered streets, too). When the researchers removed tiny towns with less than 1,000 people from their analysis, the share of all U.S. cities with numbered streets rose to 55 percent. Among places with populations of 10,000 or more, the strong majority (67 percent) used street numbering.
The role of population is consistent with the idea that logical spatial systems aid city navigation. But that doesn’t explain why even among very small towns—places with less than 1,000 population and just a handful of streets—a considerable share of 43 percent still used street numbers to some degree. Rose-Redwood suspects that, in these cases, street numbering might have had less to do with wayfinding and more to do with a desire to follow the latest planning trends.
“In other words, between 1850 and 1950, street numbering had become a signifier of ‘modernity’ that had a certain practical utility for large cities and a symbolic value for smaller towns,” he says.