Friday, May 6, 2011

Friday Read: A History of Street Standards

During the past few weeks I've been taking advantage of the proximity of my neighborhood library to search out published articles on topics of relevance to this blog.  To follow Monday's post, I'd like to bring readers' attention to a 1995 paper by Michael Southworth and Eran Ben-Joseph on the history of street standards in urban planning, a topic which may seem arcane but which is actually a key contributing element to modern failures in urban design as well as the infrastructure crises currently facing many American cities. 

One of the interesting things to learn is that the first regulations for very wide streets long predated the automobile, and were in fact a reaction of debatable justifiability to conditions in the mid-19th century English industrial city rather than the spatial needs of the car (those regulations in turn drawing inspiration from the Baroque city planning of the previous two centuries, the aesthetic vision of which was super-human scale designed to awe and impress regardless of cost or utility, often as an expression of the political power of emerging centralized nation-states).

Another point is that the economic wastefulness of the required street standards during the modern suburban expansion was well-known and in fact strongly opposed by the homebuilders of the time, and that it was the crucial linkage of the standards to FHA mortgage qualifications, along with copycat municipal planning standards, that essentially mandated the construction of this costly, inefficient, overscaled and unsafe (due to speeding) form:
"In 1938 the FHA Technical and Land Planning divisions initiated a free review program in which prospective developers could submit preliminary plans to the FHA, whose consultants would then suggest layouts conforming to FHA. It was a powerful control mechanism, and naturally almost all subdivision developers submitted their plans for review to ensure a guaranteed mortgage. Thus, the federal government was able to exercise tremendous authority and power through the simple act of 'making an offer that could not be refused.'

"[The National Association of Home Builders] strongly opposed what it saw as excessive standards. In its 1950s Manual for Land Development the organization asked: 'Why is it that the widths of local residential roadways up to 36 and 40 feet are still advocated by some highway engineers and planning commissions?' The manual gave as the apparent reasons (1) misunderstanding of the relationship between street location, alignment width, and use; (2) adherence to the obsolete theory that every street should be designed as a traffic street; (3) insistence on continuous alignment of minor streets; and (4) disregard of economic aspects such as the cost of constructing, maintaining, and repairing from 38 to 54 percent more roadway surface than is needed .... [Emphasis added].

"The building industry's emphasis on reconsidering street standards was met with considerable reluctance by local planning agencies. The specter of substandard, street layouts along with the rise in vehicular ownership promoted a continuation of technocratic design for subdivisions."
The entire article, Street Standards and the Shaping of Suburbia, is available as a PDF here.  Lots of nice photos and diagrams included.


  1. Hi Charles,

    Once again I am enjoying your historical perspective on these matters. I agree completely that the main motivating factor was an urge to create on a "super-human scale designed to awe and impress regardless of cost or utility," or what I call the Heroic Materialist aesthetic. (Kenneth Clarke's term.)

    However, once automobiles arrived and became popular (in large part because streets were already wide enough for their use), then there was a rational urge to make new developments even more car-friendly. This meant wider streets, bigger setbacks and green space between the automobile roadway and buildings, things like dedicated left turn lanes, and of course a lot more parking.

    The 19th Century Hypertrophic design was not very good for either walking or driving. This was resolved by making it better for driving. However, this had its own consequences, as we know so well, among them that the end result is terrifically expensive.

  2. Really interesting observations.

    It brings up an intriguing possibility. Currently the dichotomy seems to be neighborhood groups vs. developers. The government, through zoning regs, is the mediator/negotiator.

    But perhaps these two "opposing" groups actually share some common ground. As your quote points out, resource efficiency and human scale can actually work quite well together.

    It's similar with parking, where developers don't actually want to have to build any extra parking since it costs nearly $40,000 per space. Yet, many zoning requirements, or even more problematic, loan stipulations, require excessive amounts of parking.

    Maybe its time that these two groups come together and start the status quo on city planning and zoning.

  3. Southworth and Ben-Joseph wrote an entire book on this subject, "Streets and the Shaping of Towns and Cities," published by McGraw-Hill in 1997

  4. Thanks, Bill -- I'll have to get a hold of that.