"However, wide blocks or not, it is what we have. It would be great if our streets were a bit smaller but they aren't and there is realistically no way to start shrinking block size now.This is an important point to ponder, because it moves this conversation about narrow streets out of the realm of the ideal and into that of the achievable. If we can't realistically narrow streets or shrink block sizes in American cities, is this whole debate just academic? And if so, aren't we really wasting time with this discussion, when we could be brainstorming more pragmatic ways of reclaiming our streets and public spaces for pedestrian life?
To add a bit of reality here, perhaps you can look into examples of innovative ways of creating more pedestrian scaled streets and spaces. One example would be the promotion of alleys as commercial streets. ... There are also possibilities of reinventing wide streets as front yards for gardening, bike boulevards, or more spacious outdoor seating.
The United States simple isn't Europe and our cities will never look like theirs. While its great to compare and contrast the differences it would be helpful to also look to a hopeful future as well."
I have a couple quick thoughts in response.
First, I agree there's a lot that can be done, short of physically narrowing rights-of-way, to improve the pedestrian experience. Over at the Strong Towns blog, a resource ("Tactical Urbanism") has just been posted which covers many small scale, low-cost ways to improve the quality of urban life for people on foot, or to at least get people thinking about these types of issues. This stuff is great and represents, I think, the sort of thing Jane Jacobs had in mind when she referred to "tactics ... suitable to a strategy of attrition of automobiles by cities." (Death and Life, p. 474). It's a battle for hearts and minds as much as for territory.
I would, however, question the position that street narrowings or block partitions are only pipe dreams. Since the early 20th century American cities have carried out in unthinking fashion thousands of street widenings, many of which involved the use of the condemnation power and which resulted in the destruction of large numbers of urban buildings. The idea of narrowing a roadway would have been incomprehensible to a traffic engineer of 1960; most likely the thought simply wouldn't have crossed his mind.
With a mindset as pro-pedestrian as the earlier planner’s was reflexively pro-automobile, there’s no reason the opposite could not be achieved. Just as one side of a street was previously slated for demolition for new freeways or arterial roads, one side could today be designated for expansion into the public right of way. Or, in the case of extremely wide streets, development rights might be created in the center roadway itself. A city could simultaneously reduce its infrastructure costs while adding taxable land to the property rolls. These are just tentative ideas, open to debate and disagreement, but I do believe there is room for a lot of creative thinking here in terms of urban design and economically efficient allocation of urban space.
The first step in the process, though, must be about identifying, diagnosing and understanding the problem in as wide an economic, historical and geographic context as possible. For that I don’t think there’s a much better or more accessible starting point out there than Nathan Lewis’ writings on streets and urbanism, but with my few posts on narrow streets, grids etc. I’m trying to provoke the same sort of discussion.