Artifact – The Jefferson Grid

I’m always very intrigued by the concept of systemic affordances, especially those so macroscopic in nature as to be rendered invisible by sheer scale.  To this effect, I have selected to look at the Jefferson Grid for this week’s artifact.

The Jefferson Grid is, effectively, invisible.  You’ll probably never see it in your life.  And yet it comprises approximately 60% of the continental United States.   And it has shaped our entire logistical environment: roads, farms, utilities, public services, ownership of land… which in turn creates a cascade of other, resultant systemic features (the parceling system for subdivisions, the difference in scale and fairway composition between American and European golf courses, even the most popular length of segmented boom arm scaffolds for center pivot irrigation systems).

Developed by Thomas Jefferson in the 18th century as an effecient and accurate method for surveying newly acquired or unmapped federal lands, it has since divided everything west of the Mississippi, and much of the territory east until the original thirteen colonies, into a series of perfectly aligned, one-mile-square spaces.

It’s the shape of our world, both perfectly regimented and completely arbitrary.  For some reason, this strikes me as particularly fitting in the New American Century.

Norman argues that we should understand affordances in part through a felt sense of wrongness, “the queasy or knotted feelings in your gut” (12) which tell you about the lack of affordance present in objects without intentional design.

I grew up on a grid farm, in a grid town, in the heavily gridded western Ohio region of the Black Swamp.  For me, the existence of this grid defined my life and childhood.  It was how I understood (and saw) the world–and yet to define this space to others as formative or essential to my knowledge of space is challenging (perhaps impossible).

To live here, in Virginia, where spaces do not adhere to a logic of place (even when not limited by prevailing topography or natural features) is to exist in a constant state of unease.

Thanks, Jefferson.


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