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French researchers have confirmed some residents’ worst fears: Washington, D.C., is a European city. That is, as far as our street grid is concerned.

The paper, published Wednesday in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, analyzed the geometry of blocks from 131 cities and created “fingerprints” representing how often different kinds of shapes occur. With its small, irregularly shaped blocks, the city that D.C. most closely resembles is Paris, says study co-author Remi Louf, of the Institute of Theoretical Physics in France.

“The distinct feature of these cities is the presence of radiating avenues that were built to connect different points in the city, and that do not respect the layout’s underlying geometry,” he explained via email.

Those American cities built after the advent of the automobile have regular grids and large blocks. Older cities, like Boston and Baltimore, hark back to our pedestrian past, with smaller, more walkable blocks. But unlike our neighbors to the north, D.C.’s street pattern didn’t develop organically. It was planned — by notable Parisian Pierre L’Enfant.

L’Enfant, however, would be surprised to see the resemblance between D.C. and Paris today. When he was plotting out the District’s grid in 1791, France’s capital city was a mass of squiggly, medieval streets. It wasn’t until the latter part of the 19th century that Paris began to resemble D.C., thanks to Napoleon III’s creation of major avenues connecting train stations.

 

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