Jefferson's vision wrought Ravenna and Portage streetplans

By Jack Schafer and Robert Bruegmann Published:

At first glance, the plan of Ravenna looks quite unremarkable, a mere grid of streets. From an airplane flying west from Ohio it is possible to see hundreds of variations on this design from small agricultural towns in Nebraska to the giant grids of Chicago, Salt Lake City or Los Angeles.

However, the original plat of Ravenna devised by Benjamin Tappan, Jr. in 1808 is more than just a grid of streets. As one of the first towns laid out in conjunction with the great national survey of the late eighteenth century, it is also testimony to an important planning idea, and it is one of the city's defining elements to this day.

The idea of the city grid, which allowed for easy surveying and orderly development of land, dates back to antiquity, but it was mostly lost during the centuries that followed, only to be revived on a large scale during the Renaissance. In the North American colonies, most cities continued to grow in an irregular, organic way, but the grid did appear, for example in the original plat of New Orleans, what is today called the French Quarter and in Philadelphia where William Penn directed surveyors to lay out a large grid between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers.

It was during the years immediately after the Revolutionary War that the government of the new United States took the idea of the grid and applied it on an unprecedented and vast scale, an effort that was part of the same drive to rationalize all aspects of human activity that resulted in the metric system and the decimal currency system.

Thomas Jefferson was the chief proponent of a great national survey. His vision was for the federal government to survey land quickly and inexpensively so that it could then be sold to citizens at prices that would allow Americans of even modest means to become free and independent landowners, a prerequisite in his mind for a true democracy. The result was the Land Ordinance of 1785 in which the entire country west of the original thirteen colonies was surveyed and laid out in a series of giant grids. In this system townships 6 miles square were then divided into 36 sections, each one-mile square. These sections could in turn be subdivided into smaller plots that could be easily sold or transferred.

Anyone looking down at the American heartland from a plane will be struck by the giant checkerboard of farm holdings that resulted from this subdivision of the land. The grid of the cities echoes the larger agricultural patterns but on a smaller scale. It is an inherently democratic system that gives no priority to any particular piece of property.

Eastern Ohio was the place where this system was first tested. The first land to be surveyed was a section of Ohio along the Ohio River. A monument near East Liverpool marks the spot. Northeast Ohio followed soon after. Because Ohio was the test bed it contains many oddities. In northeast Ohio, for example, many townships are only 5 miles square. Ravenna Township ended up slightly longer from east to west than from north to south. Early settlers often chose to lay out towns at the very center of the townships. This pattern is visible in Mantua Center in Mantua Township and Hiram in Hiram Township.

When Benjamin Tappan laid out his new town of Ravenna he chose a site close to the center of Ravenna Township. He did, however, follow the logic of the survey by dividing his land into square town plots bordered by streets that were intended to be aligned on the north-south and east-west national coordinates although they do deviate just slightly from the grid.

On a map the original grid of Ravenna is clearly visible. Extending from what is now Sycamore on the west to Walnut on the east and from Highland on the north to Riddle on the south, it appears to be almost completely regular. The major exception is the widening of the principal east west street, now Main Street, into what Tappan designated as Public Square. The Ravenna plan contrasts markedly with that of nearby Kent where, because of the irregular course of the Cuyahoga River, it made sense to let the town grow in a more organic way.

The Ravenna developers who laid out additional tracts during the nineteenth and early twentieth century tended to extend Tappan's grid but sometimes departed from it to accommodate local topographical conditions like existing roads, streams, or railroads. In some cases these tract grids were never fully completed because portions of projected streets weren't actually opened and sold.

Only after World War II did developers break the grid mold during the period when it became common practice to lay out subdivisions with curving streets and cul-de-sacs. The Fairgrounds Subdivision of the early 50s off of North Freedom Street, and the Spring Tree development of the 70s in the NE section of town are good examples. This kind of deviation from the grid followed planning wisdom of those decades with developers favoring this street layout because it allowed for less through traffic and for more variety in the size and shapes of lots. But they did this at the cost of putting more traffic on arterials and eroding the legibility and order of the grid. It also has made it more difficult for fire, police and delivery vehicles to reach their destinations and it often means a longer car trip to get from a resident's house to a location very close by as the crow flies.

There has been a strong movement in recent years to return to the street grid as the most efficient way to lay out cities, maintain coherence and accommodate traffic.

Proponents of the movement known as the New Urbanism in particular have argued in favor of gridded plans as a way of recovering an easily walkable city that was largely lost in the low-density developments of the postwar decades.

It will be interesting to see whether Ravenna, which started with an easy to understand and walkable grid, will expand with discontinuous curving streets and cul-de-sacs, or whether the logic of the grid that was so compelling for the 150 years of our nation's history will make a comeback and Ravenna will see a return to the spirit of the National Survey and Benjamin Tappan's original plat.

Jack Schafer is a Ravenna businessman with an interest in historic preservation. Robert Bregmann is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art History, Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Chicago. This is the second installment in a series that primarily focuses on Ravenna and its identity as a planned city of architectural distinction.

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