Four North American Land Systems

Long ago, we took a look at different suburban typologies, contrasting California, the Midwest, the South, and the Northeast, and considered the impact of these different typologies on the resulting suburban form and density. Let’s dig a little deeper and examine some different land division patterns and systems, which also have an impact on development patterns today.

There are four major North American land systems that I’m aware of; if anyone knows of others, please respond in the comments and I’ll update the post. The four are:

  • Metes and bounds: this system dominates in the old colonies of New England and the Mid-Atlantic, and reveals itself in small, irregular four-sided lots, sort of like (old) England.
  • US public land survey system: this system of regular square land parcels is easiest to spot in the Midwest, and covers the vast majority of the US, with a similar system in Canada.
  • French colonial: this system appears in former French colonies like Quebec and Louisiana, consisting of narrow, very long parcels.
  • Rancho: this system of very large land grants is prevalent in much of California, having been established during Spanish colonial and Mexican rule.

Metes and Bounds

Metes (straight lines between two points) and bounds (things like streams, stone walls, and roads) refers to the one of the oldest surveying systems, imported to North America from England by colonists. Unlike later surveying systems, metes and bounds property descriptions often refer to ephemeral features such as walls, trees, and stones. For example, a metes and bounds property description might start with a reference to “the large oak tree in front of Cromwell’s Tavern”, and proceed to describe the locations of other points on the property boundary using a mix of bearings and distances (metes) and natural features (bounds).

Unsurprisingly, these descriptions can lead to considerable ambiguity as to the boundaries of properties. Stone walls disappear; trees die. Streams move; at first, the property line was considered to move with the stream, but later courts overturned this principle and ruled that the property line remains in the location of the stream at the time the property was described, something not always easy to determine. This system also depended on the accuracy of the surveyors, who may have been using poorly calibrated equipment or have spent too much time at Cromwell’s Tavern before starting work.

Culturally, the colonists in New England also attempted to arrange their settlements in a manner similar to English towns. Since so much of New England has reverted to forest, it’s not easy to see this pattern in its native state there, but you can still find it western Massachusetts and the Champlain Valley in Vermont. Further south, in New York, Dutch colonizers initially established enormous estates known as patroonships. However, these were thoroughly chopped up into smaller parcels long before suburbanization. By and large, the Mid-Atlantic states and the coastal Southern states also follow this pattern.

In these places, property boundaries are irregular. Small agricultural towns were scattered about the countryside, and farms tended to be relatively isolated from towns. For urban development, this pattern results in irregular roads, complicating transportation planning, and small parcels, which result in decentralized development that often occurs in a leapfrog pattern.

For example, here’s the area south of Dover, DE. Small subdivisions are widely spread out among farms.

This pattern holds for larger cities as well. This area is barely ten miles from downtown Philadelphia.

Because they developed at a later date, Southern cities like Charlotte and Raleigh have been developed almost exclusively in this manner.

The resulting low density creates challenges for transportation, especially for transit. If an urban area is growing fast enough, the spaces between will eventually fill in, but if growth slows, development will be frozen in that fractured pattern.

US Public Land Survey System

While the Articles of Confederation were largely a failure, Congress did manage to pass a law that helped do away with the problems of metes and bounds surveying, the Land Ordinance of 1785. This law established that territory in new states would be subdivided into square townships, 6 miles on each side, with each square referenced to a base point at the intersection of a north-south meridian and an east-west baseline. For example, the township two squares south and three squares west of the base point would be T2S R3W – township 2 south, range 3 west. In practice, the townships cannot all be square because the earth is not flat, but regular procedures for corrections were established.


In southern California, our meridian is the San Bernardino Meridian, which intersects its corresponding baseline at the summit of San Bernardino Peak. The latter is memorialized in Base Line Rd, which extends from Highland to La Verne. The 7th Standard Road in Kern County, which you may have seen from the 99, gets its name for its location relative to northern California’s Mount Diablo base line.

Each township is divided into 36 sections of one square mile (640 acres), further divided into quarter-sections of 160 acres, which settlers could claim under the Homestead Act, and even into quarter quarter-sections, the 40 acres that Kanye West rapped about trying to buy back. The Prairie Provinces and western Canada were laid out by similar systems known as the Alberta Township System and Dominion Land Survey.

While the transition from metes to bounds to the USPLSS occurs in wooded terrain, it is still possible to see the difference between western Pennsylvania and Ohio, with the USPLSS well-established in western Ohio.

Ohio's grid

Ohio’s grid

Pennsylvania's not

Pennsylvania’s not

Despite the change in surveying philosophy, the cultural patterns did not change. Farming communities established under this system still tend to feature isolated farms and towns, though the towns are more regularly spaced. For suburbanization, this pattern results in more regular subdivisions, but the resulting density may still be low if it’s in a region with low-density suburb types or if the property was divided into smaller sections prior to World War 2.

Since the Midwest had good conditions for agriculture, small farms are more common, and it is common to see development leapfrog across the landscape. For example, have a look at the south side of Chicago’s exurbs and the northwestern side of Milwaukee’s.

The further west you go in the US, the more marginal the land becomes for unirrigated agriculture. This meant that land was often held in larger farms, leased at large scale for grazing, or not used for agriculture at all. Thus, suburbanization seems to proceed in larger blocks, known as master plans, and can often present a remarkably defined development front. The poster children for this type of development are the new western cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City.

The resulting density can be considerably higher than what happens on the east coast; the fringes of Las Vegas are denser than many close-in east coast suburbs. So while a lot of urbanists conceptualize places like Las Vegas and Salt Lake City as being the same as places like Atlanta and Charlotte, in reality, they’re quite different.


Left: Las Vegas. Right: Atlanta


Left: Salt Lake City. Right: Charlotte.

In California, you can see this relatively dense pattern of suburbanization on USPLSS patterns in places like the Antelope Valley, whose lettered avenues (A, B, etc) and numbered streets (10th, 20th, etc) count off one-mile square sections, and parts of the Inland Empire.

However, with a longer legacy of development, both agricultural and suburban, in California you can also find lower density suburbs and small undeveloped parcels. For example, Perris gives you denser master plans from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s east of the 215, but west of the 215, larger lots in Mead Valley date back to the 1950s and 1960s. West of the 15, you get the Eastvale boom of the 2000s, while to the east new master plans in Jurupa Valley butt up against the much older Mira Loma area. Older parts of Fontana slowly suburbanize piecemeal, while to the north, large master plans will march up towards Cajon Pass.

As a sidebar, Joseph Smith developed a plan for Mormon settlement based on one square mile sections, with wide streets and city blocks of 10 acres, to be divided into half-acre homestead lots. The Land Ordinance of 1785 reserved on section near the middle of the township for public education; Smith reserved several blocks in the middle of the section for things like storehouses and temples. In what must seem like dark prophecy to modern urbanists, Smith issued instructions that “when this square is laid off and thus supplied, lay off another in the same way, and so fill up the world in these last days. . . no one lot in this city is to contain more than one house, and that to be built twenty-five fee back from the street. . .” Even if one doubts Smith was a prophet of the lord, he certainly had clairvoyance for the future of American planning. Nevertheless, despite being laid out according to a similar plan by Brigham Young, Salt Lake City was flooded with pioneers and, as it often does, necessity trumped principle and the lots were soon divided.


Smith’s plan varied the orientation of lots so that houses wouldn’t always face each other.

Interestingly, economists have been able to show that there are economic losses associated with the metes and bounds system relative to the USPLSS, because of the greater uncertainty of property rights associated with the former. Just a reminder that good public policy can cast a very long shadow – all the way from 1785.

French Colonial

The French colonial system is much less common, simply because France was responsible for colonizing less of North America. It is often found in Quebec, Louisiana, and parts of the Maritime Provinces. This pattern is defined by narrow, very long parcels having a common frontage on the narrow end along a feature such as a stream or a road. These parcels were known as arpents. Because of this configuration, farmhouses in agricultural parts of Quebec are likely to be a little less isolated, since they cluster near the road and the adjacent lots are pretty close.

Here is another example of this pattern in Moncton, New Brunswick.

If the advantage of the arpent is obvious – providing a large number of parcels with access to a useful resource like a stream, the disadvantage is equally obvious – the parcel may be hard to work with as a unit compared to a square parcel. For suburbanization, this can create some amusingly long, skinny subdivisions, though Quebecois developers seem to have decent success in adding streets connecting adjacent parcels.

This pattern of development can also be found in Louisiana, where developers seem to have less success, or perhaps just less interest, in adding transverse streets.


At last, we come to the rancho, the historic land grants made in California under Spanish and Mexican rule. While the sizes varied widely, it was not uncommon for these grants to give a single land owner control of 50 to 75 square miles. Some, such as Rancho el Tejon and the ex-Mission San Fernando were around 150 square miles.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed at the end of the Mexican-American War, provided that these grants would be honored. However, as some other contemporary counterparties would attest, Uncle Sam’s word was not always good. The majority of claims were appealed from the Public Land Commission to the US District Court, with many appealed to the US Supreme Court. The costs and delays of litigation, combined with natural disasters such as the Noachian Deluge of 1862, caused many Californios to go bankrupt and lose their land.

While ranchos in the best locations for agriculture were soon subdivided for smaller farms, others have held together to the present day. The best known examples in Southern California are Tejon Ranch, which includes the old Rancho el Tejon and three other ranchos, occupying over 400 square miles in the Transverse Ranges near where the 5 descends the Grapevine to the Central Valley, and Irvine Ranch, which was assembled from three ranchos and comprises about 18% of Orange County.

Despite having been heavily developed and subjected to the relentless grid of the USPLSS, the influence of the ranchos is not hard to find. Manning Ave separates Cheviot Hills from Palms – that is, Rancho Rincon de los Bueyes from Rancho la Ballona, and the otherwise inexplicable line from Airdrome St to the northern boundary of the Hillcrest Country Club in turn separates Rincon de los Bueyes from Rodeo de las Aguas.

Note: the overlay is slightly off.

Note: the overlay is slightly off.

Other ranchos were developed later than LA’s Westside and are even easier to find, and have a very large impact on development patterns. Consider Irvine Ranch: it occupies almost one-fifth of the land in a county with population over 3 million, and is held by the Irvine Company, a private corporation whose shares are held entirely by one person. There is nothing comparable to this on the east coast. Development in Irvine progresses south, following California suburban patterns.


Irvine & Lake Forest are well on their way to being denser than Atlanta.

Further south, Orange County continues to develop on the old ranchos; Ladera Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo were both developed on the old Rancho Mision Vieja. Large portions of the Irvine Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo have also been contributed as permanent open space.

From the perspective of suburbanization, the ranchos lend themselves to large master plans; with typical California development patterns, this can yield a surprising amount of density, though no one would mistake it for urban.


So, what patterns do you see around your metro area? Are there other North American patterns to consider? What challenges and opportunities do you see for each pattern?

9 thoughts on “Four North American Land Systems

  1. Pingback: Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog Los Angeles

  2. Ian Mitchell

    “Consider Irvine Ranch: it occupies almost one-fifth of the land in a county with population over 3 million, and is held by the Irvine Company, a private corporation whose shares are held entirely by one person. There is nothing comparable to this on the east coast.”

    Actually, we’ve got something similar, if not bigger, in Florida. Deseret ranch covers over 312,000 acres (roughly 50 by 30 miles), much of it in orange county (Orlando, the ranch basically backs up to Orlando international airport). Florida counties arent California sized, but orange county is about 600,000 acres and around 1.5 million people. I’ve heard deseret ranch called the single largest parcel under a single owner east of the Mississippi. It’s basically the only reason that the Florida east coast (Cocoa, Melbourne, cape Canaveral) and Orlando don’t all coalesce.

    The owner? None other than the Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day saints.

  3. fmanin

    You missed Ontario! Its system is similar to USPLSS, but adorably less regular. New townships were divided by “concession roads” which are 100 chains = 1.25 miles apart, but not counting the width of the road, so the actual distances are more like 1.27 miles. This grid is not oriented along compass lines, but in some semi-arbitrary direction (for example, in Toronto, it parallels the Lake Ontario shoreline) and the lines are not actually perpendicular, so you get a grid of roughly 1.25 x 1.25 mile rhombuses. Because these lines were laid out as roads, and not just boundaries, this system has a really strong presence in street grids. Further arterials in central Toronto seem to be drawn so as to take advantage of the fact that 1.25 miles is roughly 1/2 mile + 2000ft + 2000ft. I figured this bit out before I learned of the concession road system, and was really confused for a little while.

  4. Daniel Kay Hertz

    This is awesome! I’d be interested to add local government systems as an overlay to these categories. There’s a brief (but very interesting) section on varying county sizes (and the existence of townships) between New England, the South, the Midwest, and the Mountain West in William Fischel’s new book–I don’t remember it well enough to reproduce from memory, but it might be worth working on (or reading up on work other people have already done).

  5. Alex B.

    Detroit is worth a closer look. The oldest settlements along the Detroit River follow the French colonial pattern of long, skinny lots each with a small amount of river frontage. This is particularly noticeable across the border in Windsor, Ontario.

    However, step back and zoom out and the rest of the city reverts to the grid system of the public land survey. The square mile grid dominates not just the form of the region, but also the cultural boundaries (e.g. 8 mile road).

    1. Alex B.

      This Wired post has some great old maps of Detroit, showing the evolution of the city’s property structure and street grids over time, starting with the long, skinny French colonial lots (still evidenced in today’s street system) facing the river to the odd triangular grid system of the Woodward plan to the more traditional grid of streets.

  6. Pingback: County Size | Let's Go LA

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