Thursday, April 14, 2011

Are Narrow Streets a Realistic Objective?

In response to a previous post about American city grids, commenter Josh Mahar made the following point, which I'd like to take a moment to address:

"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.

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."
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?

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.


  1. Narrower streets could easily be achieved by giving property owners control of sidewalks (perhaps for a fee), and then upzoning a slight bit so that they can build to the same height but using the extra couple of feet that is now part of their property. What is now parking could then be turned into a sidewalk, and if it's a wide road (i.e., two or more lanes in each direction), then you could turn one lane for cars into a parking lane.

  2. Hi! I've enjoyed reading your blog for the past few weeks, but haven't had a chance to post any comments.

    Here are two comments (my two cents) on "narrow streets":

    1) In order to have a truly fruitful discussion about "streets" (narrow or wide) I think it's important to use a more detailed vocabulary than the one that is conventionally employed.

    For instance, I think it is especially important to make a distinction between a "street" (the void that's between building and/or property lines) and what I call a "roadbed" (the paved space where cars drive and/or park).

    While I think narrow "roadbeds" can, in certain instances, be a good idea, I don't think narrow "streets" (the void between building lines) are, generally speaking, more beneficial than regular "streets.

    2)Rather than narrow "streets," or even narrow "roadbeds," I think many cities (including NYC) would greatly benefit from the construction of more "streets" (regular width) in general.

    The main purpose of these addeded streets would be to create smaller blocks, and for an extended discussion of the usefulness of small blocks, see, of course, the chapter on small blocks in Jane Jacobs' "Death and Life of Great American Cities."

    By the way, although I don't think additional "roadbeds" (on these additional "streets") would be a bad idea at all, these added "streets" wouldn't necessarily have to have roadbeds, however, if people strongly object (which I suspect they would). These additional streets could be pedestrian streets, instead, if people are really adamant about it.

    Interestingly, the additional PRIVATE street in Rockefeller Center that Jane Jacobs writes about in the chapter on small blocks originally had a roadbed that was eliminated just a few years ago. So, originally, the street looked like (and acted like) a conventional public street (although it was, in reality, a private street), and now it is a pedestrianized private street (with no roadbed).

    Benjamin Hemric
    Thursday, April, 14, 2011, 8:44 p.m.

  3. The problem with narrowing existing streets is that you're unlikely to get a narrower space between buildings unless you remove the existing buildings. Perhaps the best approach would be to move half of the right-of-way to somewhere else on the block, recreating alleys or making smaller blocks. Of course, this would have to happen during redevelopment.

  4. Stephen -- I really like your idea. Simply transferring the rights to the land might be seen as a windfall to existing property owners, but I'm sure that could be worked around, perhaps by offering the owners a right of first refusal to purchase the land at its market value.

    Benjamin -- Thanks for reading and for your comment. One of my points about narrow streets relates to your concern for short blocks -- if the city is to have many short blocks, narrow streets will become important lest the city's ratio of "street" (as you define it) to building footprint become very high, and thus the overall density too low. Not all streets need be narrow, but if none or few are, the ratio will tend to drift too high.

    Patrick: I don't think there's necessarily a need to remove existing buildings. Many an American main street grew through the addition of brick storefronts onto the facades of pre-existing residential structures (visible today on almost any main street if you look closely). This was essentially a narrowing process that involved no removal. I see no reason why the same sort of process couldn't occur again today.

  5. I see a very tedious process with little real benefit.

    It depends on the context. DC has wide streets, but that's because we have wide street rights of way - most buildings have very little setback from the property line. If you're talking about eliminating setbacks, that's one thing. However, I can't say I'd support Stephen's idea of selling sidewalk space.

    More pragmatically, I think you run into a design issue. Streets (meaning the entire space, not just the roadway) are very permanent. They last a long time. Changing them requires (as noted with the widening examples) blunt tools. Narrowing them and narrowing them well would require that same bluntness to make it work.

    I note the example of Pennsylvania Ave in DC. One of the recommendations in a plan from the 60s and 70s was to widen the avenue between the White House and the Capitol for parades and whatnot. They did this via new setback requirements along the north side of an already wide street, so that new development would be set back another 30 feet.

    New buildings conform to this standard, but people campaigned to preserve old ones. When they were preserved, the result is an awkward shifting of the streetwall - it goes in, it goes out, it doesn't feel right at all. (You can see the effect most obviously between 9th and 13th Streets - )

    The same process for a piecemeal narrowing of a street would, I fear, be subject to the same problem - you'd narrow the right of way in some places, but not in others, and you'd get a disjointed and discontinuous streetwall. That's not a very good outcome in an urban environment (a suburban environment with large yards and substantial front setbacks is a different case, I think).

    I think this is an excellent example of why getting things right the first time is key, because streets and street rights of way are perhaps the most permanent aspects of the public realm of any city.

  6. I think it is still too early to have this sort of discussion in the United States. It is not necessary, at this point, to have some sort of grand plan to change the street layout of every city on the continent.

    What is necessary is to make one successful example of a Really Narrow Street Traditional City neighborhood. It doesn't have to be very big -- maybe a tenth of a square mile is plenty. This could be in the context of an existing city, for example bulldozing a WalMart SuperCenter, or maybe an old urban factory complex, or it could be in the context of a planned development, for example a shopping mall with condos, or an "alpine ski village" at the base of some ski slopes, or a beach resort.

    This is a job for the visionaries, because, as the above posts show, most people are not even able to imagine such a thing, and certainly not able to imagine the advantages, and thus have no motivation. It is only after some real life examples are built, that they can see that a) it works; b) it's fun; c) we know how to do it; d) it's profitable.

  7. There's actually some ways this can come about that are at least as simple as current development is done. Portland, Oregon's south waterfront development is a good example of how narrow streets *could* have happened. Of course, it didn't happen.

    The basics are that an industrial and residential section of town was cut off from the rest of the city by a freeway. Developers leveled this area and put in condo towers and office buildings separated by wide streets, parking lots and awkward parks. Plus they extended Portland's street car to service the area.

    It could have been built in a traditional city format that fit in at least as many residences and businesses, if not more. Keep the street car station and you have a car free section of town within a 10 minute street car ride of downtown Portland. It could have been gorgeous!

    The other way to do it is modular. As a city like Detroit abandons entire quarters, forward thinking individuals could fill the gap. I envision a group of people buying multiple adjacent blocks, streets and all from the city and developing them as they see fit outside of the city's jurisdiction.

    Yet another way would be more "organic." The housing bust, along with rising gas prices, rising unemployment and a tanking economy show the suburbs for what they are: an over-leveraged, subsidized mess. The result is that people begin abandoning large sections of the suburbs and clump around employment and transportation hubs (places with access to rail.) Rising land values in these areas encourage infill. Cars are abandoned. Formal farmer's markets start becoming permanent fixtures. A neighborhood association takes over their street and starts subdividing lots. The middle line of the street becomes the center of a new block and front lawns become the new street.

  8. Thanks for all the great comments, everyone.

    Alex B.: I agree that disjointed street frontages would not be desirable, but I think that outcome could be avoided by starting with individual blocks or smaller stretches of street as test runs so as not to create mid-block interruptions. Most American cities have spent the past 60 years fragmenting their main streets with plazas and parking lots, so in a lot of places there's not much unity to disrupt. In that sense Washington, with its large, built-out downtown (abetted by the Height Act, perhaps), is not really a representative American example.

    Anonymous: It would help to have a real-life American example to point to, but one created as a ski village or beach town might suffer from the same "otherness" problem as European villages, i.e., it's a nice concept for a vacation spot, but as an everyday living environment in my hometown, it would never work! Nantucket, which is built as a traditional village in parts, has not been the planning inspiration for neighborhoods elsewhere in New England even though it's been visited and loved by millions. Instead, everyone tries to buy a house on Nantucket.

    Vince: That's too bad about Portland. There seem to be systemic governance issues that weigh against more traditional development patterns in reclaimed industrial areas. The condo tower/"green space" combination is ubiquitous and represents a few hand-picked developers vertically monopolizing the residential demand of an area (although in other cases it's a symptom of exclusionary zoning and NIMBY attitudes in existing residential neighborhoods). I think height limits can at least be a help in those situations. Of course your "organic" scenario may come to pass before any real reform occurs.

  9. I appreciate the idea that "otherness" leads people to not appreciate the potential of the places they actually visit on their week in Italy. However, I would also say that this sense of "otherness" is primarily because these are historical examples, not because they are vacation destinations. In other words, I think it would be very influential to demonstrate that we can build a place like the North End of Boston today, from a blank field. There are thousands of historical examples but not a single one (in the U.S.) of a Traditional City layout from brand-new construction. This would be the breakthrough moment.

  10. I should add that it would be a breakthrough moment for architects, construction companies, developers and financiers, even if not necessarily so for the public at large. Once you build a successful Traditional City alpine ski resort village, you know how to make a successful Traditional City redevelopment of old urban factory space.

    In general, deteriorating places like Detroit are not good locations for new Traditional City development. It may seem so, because they have a lot of unused land. However, the result is also that they have a lot of existing buildings that are available for much less than the construction cost of new buildings, so new construction is unprofitable.

  11. Sorry I jumped into this late, but thanks for continuing the discussion!

    Some good ideas and thoughts here. I'll add a couple of my own.

    I agree with Charlie that doing a separated example would have that "otherness" feel.

    The idea of transferring parts of the street to property owners is interesting. Certainly giving public land to private owners isn't always the most popular idea, but if budget problems continue that could be an incentive. There would also be the issue that absent a huge redevelopment (which has its own problems), the street would likely take years to actually narrow as building owners slowly build out. However, in the interim the space could just be big outdoor seating, garden space, or what have you.

    The Portland example reminds me of the Seattle waterfront redevelopment with the Viaduct coming down. There has been some talk of adding a row of buildings within the opened up ROW but I don't know how much traction its gotten...

  12. Josh -- thanks for your thoughtful comments. I hope you didn't mind my using them as a springboard for a post!

    I do think you are right that transferring land from public to private could be a tough sell politically, but it couldn't possibly be more contentious than the eminent domain transfers from individual private owners to large employers, ala Kelo. And in legal terms it's far less problematic -- the Constitution is concerned with public takings of private land, not the selling of public land to private parties, which is a distinctively American tradition.

  13. Medieval cities with their narrow streets were not set up by zoning boards and traffic engineers. The Roman cities they grew out of _were_ planned. Perhaps the simplest experiment would be for a city like Detroit or Cleveland to set up a "no zone district" and just watch what happens.

    Of course, if those city governments could do something like that, they wouldn't be in the state they're in right now . . .

  14. Trimegistus: Unfortunately, the type of "no zone development" you refer to is virtually unheard of in the United States and indeed in any developed country, and has been for over two centuries (that is, a non-centrally planned neighborhood, not one necessarily with Euclidean zoning). Squatter settlements, where they have developed, are considered a threat to law and order rather than an intriguing possibility for urban design.

    In an ironic twist, the places you tend to find them still being built are in repressive, non-democratic countries: the Libyan city of Misrata, lately in the news, appears (from Google Earth) to have grown almost entirely in unplanned fashion; the cities of Egypt are much the same.