“They say the cows laid out Boston. Well, there are worse surveyors.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
-by Jon Cotton
When the Puritans came in 1630, they had a great grand vision about being God’s chosen people and establishing a new “promised land” etc. Another of their great grand famous objectives was to avoid immediate death. Harsh conditions killed half the Plymouth group their first year. Shelter and food were first. Public ways were not first. Nor, apparently, were they quite second. The settlers labored. And paths developed, unplanned, in answer to necessity. And so they were not extremely organized. No one on record says the streets were extremely organized. About this facet of Americana there is no debate. They were organized like strings of spaghetti in a baby’s bowl, or tangled threads in a ball of string – a fractal geometry.
There’s an old myth that goes back pretty far that says Boston’s streets were “formed by cows.” This is of course ridiculous. Though not designed in advance, the streets had nonetheless a fundamental sense: they connected the main nodes of interest – meanderingly, so be it – to each other. But these centers of interest were human centers of interest; they were not centers of cow interest. For example there was the market where a slaughtered cow might be sold. This was not the kind of place a cow might be eager to get to. In fact cows are not smart travelers. They hardly know where to go at all. They may taste great, but they’re really stupid. In fact, no cow is known ever to have designed any urban street plan. Their hooves make it impossible to hold a pencil. The first real architect in Boston was Charles Bulfinch, much later, and he was not a cow.