The Fundamental Ingredients of Great Streets
Author: Jeff Raser
Street corridors are the connective tissue of our cities – for pedestrians and bicyclists just as much as motor vehicles. Yet, most streets in America weren’t designed with the pedestrian at the forefront of the street engineer’s mind. That’s because, since soon after World War II, we allowed the concerns of drivers to trump the concerns of everyone else.
CNU’s Charter Principle #23 states: “Streets and squares should be safe, comfortable, and interesting to the pedestrian. Properly configured, they encourage walking and enable neighbors to know each other and protect their communities.”
However, in much of our country – including the Midwest – in order to rebuild America’s streets to suit the needs of all travelers and rebuild our urban economies we must relearn the fundamental ingredients of a great street.
Pedestrian-friendly city street corridors are the life-blood of cities, and they all have the same fundamental ingredients. While the size and character of each can vary, these ingredients should be located in their proper places in order to achieve a walkable environment. These fundamental ingredients are:
· Vehicular travel lanes / turn lanes
· On-street parking
· Collector Strip / tree strip
· Private space (optional)
Vehicle Travel Lanes & Turn Lanes
Sometimes called the “Cartway”, this is the part of the street that absorbs the complete attention of most traffic engineers. It is crucial for citizens to NOT let the width of the Cartway get too big.
Cartways can easily become too wide. The pressure put upon policy makers by various interests is to add lanes to roads to increase capacity. This effort, it is commonly believed, will reduce traffic congestion and unleash development potential “down the road”. The problem is: when roads are widened the traffic which ends up driving on them is almost always more than what was forecast. This has been termed “induced demand”. The futurist Lewis Mumford said it best when he assessed the effort to widen roads: “widening roads to solve traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity.”
Thriving city streets have reasonably-sized Cartways which are well-balanced with the real needs of a community. Great streets not only control vehicular traffic to allow pedestrians to thrive, they create an environment which unapologetically encourages pedestrians, bicyclists, and micro-mobile persons – and the economies built around their presence.
On-street parking is a vital commodity – especially for small, local businesses. Aside from generating revenue for municipalities through parking fees, on-street parking has economic value for businesses located along a street. On-street parking also provides an element of safety and comfort for pedestrians – even on local, residential-only streets. On-street parking, whether in a parallel or angled arrangement, provides what the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) calls: “Street Friction”. This street friction calms traffic by making drivers feel like they have to slow down.
Collector Strip / Tree Strip
The Collector Strip is arguably the most important element of a pedestrian-friendly street corridor. Yet, its role is very often misunderstood or ignored. The Collector Strip is the space between the curb and the sidewalk which can host grass, trees & plantings, streetlights, benches, parking meters, signs, bus stops, artwork or whatever a community wants. Design of the Collector Strip is a community’s biggest opportunity to customize the civic character it wishes to present to visitors. Collector strips can be wide or narrow, softscaped or hardscaped, and full of architectural and artistic elements or sparsely filled.
Unfortunately, too many communities and engineers don’t understand the critical role that a Collector Strip plays in a pedestrian-friendly environment – or they just don’t care. Both the placement and size of a Collector Strip are crucial to making a pedestrian-friendly street corridor. If it’s reduced in size, especially along a roadway where vehicles drive fast, then it doesn’t help pedestrians at all. And if there’s not even enough room in the collector strip to hold the things it should hold, then the result can be downright silly.
The sidewalk is a precious element of a well-connected, vibrant community. Not only is it the connective tissue for pedestrians, it is also the place where people can talk to one another in a chance meeting. Unlike while driving, the sidewalk is where conversations can happen and human connections can be reinforced. It is an element of commonality and connection for all people regardless of their income, age, heritage, beliefs, gender, or physical abilities (and their dogs).
The Sidewalk is actually more of a “public” element than the asphalt roadway that cars and trucks use. This is for one simple reason: nobody – not one single person anywhere – is required to have a government-issued license to use a sidewalk. The same can’t be said of the roadway.
The Private Space – often simply called the “front yard” – is versatile and has the power to show visitors the values and personality of a property within the larger neighborhood. No ingredient of the street corridor can have as wide a range of flavor as the private space. By definition, the private space is under the control of a private property owner. Yet it is undeniably a part of the public realm because it is seen and felt by visitors – it is “occupied” by a visitor’s view.
Often regulated by zoning, the size and architecture of the private space can give an overall impression of some civic unity among wonderfully different places and architecture. The private space can also be a valuable commodity. It can host sidewalk cafes or the wares of retailers. The private space is the complex area that links privately owned property – particularly buildings – to the public realm.
The framing ingredient of a good, pedestrian-friendly Street Corridor are the buildings along both sides of it. The size and placement of the buildings lining a street help give a Street Corridor its scale and intensity. Taller buildings spaced closely will give the feel of a more intense environment, while shorter buildings spread farther apart will give the feel of a less intense environment.
While most street corridors in existing cities already have their proportions pretty well established, cities evolve and transform. New buildings replace old ones, and new buildings fill vacant lots, giving new opportunities to re-frame a community’s character over time. A well-prepared community will set its zoning according to a desired future so new buildings will shape the Street Corridor a community wants.
Many communities are searching for ways to increase the vitality of their downtowns and neighborhoods. Renovating their street corridors into being places where pedestrians thrive, and are not just an afterthought of car-focused engineers – is the best place to start.
Jeff Raser, AIA, is the owner of Cincinnati Urban Design and Architecture Studio (CUDA Studio). Midway through Jeff’s 30 year career he realized it is the space outside and between buildings that is the focus of his passion.
Jeff has master-planned new communities, created urban design plans for existing urban neighborhoods, and helped create zoning codes (including form-based codes) which allow developers to profitably create what communities want and need. He’s also designed many new urban-infill buildings – and restored historic ones – helping communities realize their full potential.