Monday, November 28, 2011

Street Narrowing, circa 1200 A.D.

Back in April, I ventured a few ideas on the topic of street narrowing, a remedy I'd suggested for certain overscaled urban streets.  Although modern examples of narrowing (here meaning physically building into the right-of-way) are quite rare, the process was commonplace several hundred years ago, according to this account of medieval Bologna, which apparently was more accommodating of student housing needs than many 21st century American cities:

"....every street is lined with arcades, or portici.  The original ones date from the 12th century, when the comune, faced with a housing shortage compounded by the presence of 2,000 university students, allowed rooms to be built on to existing buildings over the streets. Over time, the Bolognesi became attached to them and the shelter they provided from the weather."
Arcades on a Bologna arterial street.
This solution was elegant, essentially representing a sale of air rights over the existing street.  Residential space was in the aggregate expanded considerably, while pedestrians gained a network of covered passageways providing a shield from bad weather.  Remarkably, in the centuries since, it appears that few if any stores have expanded to fill the covered space beneath the arcades.

This concept was not limited to Bologna, as many other European cities underwent a similar transformation around the same time.  Even the remains of Roman cities show the same process at work.

Could this process be applicable to cities of the present day, as one of several potential approaches to right-of-way narrowing?  Although many of New York's office buildings constructed since the adoption of the 1961 zoning resolution  did adopt arcade-like features in satisfaction of density bonus incentives, these were never constucted over sidewalks, and sometimes were separated from the walk entirely, rendering them useless as a source of shelter for those on foot.  One can imagine a very different streetscape in the process of emerging had the code rewrite, instead of encouraging setbacks and plazas, offered for sale sidewalk air rights on the same terms as Bologna of the 1100s.

Related posts:
Are Narrow Streets a Realistic Objective?
Thinking Small: The Narrow Streets Movement
Josh Mahar's great article on street narrowing at CityTank: Reversing Haussman


  1. I can't think of any cases in Canada where the building was extended over the sidewalk, although there are still some nice examples of arcades that essentially increased the width of otherwise uncomfortably narrow sidewalks.

    The Bay, a department store in Calgary,+AB,+Canada&hl=en&ll=51.046413,-114.065466&spn=0.003771,0.009645&sll=40.753645,-73.969445&sspn=0.004543,0.009645&vpsrc=6&hnear=Calgary,+Division+No.+6,+Alberta,+Canada&t=h&z=17&layer=c&cbll=51.046178,-114.065488&panoid=QUEspTujUdfreNPP7nSQUg&cbp=12,247.87,,0,1.85

    At this spot in Toronto, the sidewalk outside the arcade is so narrow no-one uses it.,+ON,+Canada&hl=en&ll=43.646382,-79.375151&spn=0.004153,0.009645&sll=51.045606,-114.065546&sspn=0.001885,0.004823&vpsrc=6&hnear=Toronto,+Toronto+Division,+Ontario,+Canada&t=h&z=17&layer=c&cbll=43.646382,-79.375151&panoid=jhNa3ChT3idQKPQzT6nEFQ&cbp=12,99.71,,0,-9.71

    Although in all other cases, the sidewalk outside the arcade seems to be wider in Toronto:,+ON,+Canada&hl=en&ll=43.649771,-79.374976&spn=0.004153,0.009645&sll=51.045606,-114.065546&sspn=0.001885,0.004823&vpsrc=6&hnear=Toronto,+Toronto+Division,+Ontario,+Canada&t=h&z=17&layer=c&cbll=43.649853,-79.374654&panoid=ixSrQSW7cqNzL4Gh43KPXA&cbp=12,317.58,,0,-5.3

    I guess the city wants to keep a section of sidewalk that's under its complete control in case the building's owner becomes uncooperative.

  2. The big problem with this otherwise excellent idea is that it means land and space move from public to private. To a lot of people, including the bulk of those in government, that idea is virtually obscene.

  3. @Cambias Does it? Can't the pavement remain 'public' below?

    Fantastic post. Do you know about the Islamic concept of the 'fina' - not dissimilar.

  4. Well... a lot of city governments are low on money. Toronto's mayor is certainly looking to sell city assets he feels aren't necessary and make money from development fees.

  5. I remember working as an architect in Singapore in the mid 1990s, and being told to achieve 3.6:1 plot rations (3.6 times more floor space than site area). But if looking at a whole neighbourhood, and not just one site, that dropped by a half. The streets were so wide!

  6. @David Knight -- yes, through Besim Hakim's fantastic work on Islamic cities (which I have linked at right). This idea does share some similarities as you've pointed out.

  7. Now that we're long past the golden age of awnings, rain and snow are a big disincentive to walking. Arcades are a great solution- especially in northern cities where municipalities have trouble compelling property owners to shovel.

    Incidentally, I live a block away from a nice wide arcade, but it appears to have been built on private property, possibly in exchange for the provision of on-street parking in former sidewalk space:,+mn&ll=44.975137,-93.279937&spn=0.000723,0.001206&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-a&hnear=Minneapolis,+Hennepin,+Minnesota&gl=us&t=h&z=20&vpsrc=6

  8. I wonder how easy it would be to expand buildings like this. Building codes and bureaucracy might be a formidable obstacle-- you can't just draw up a plan and start building.

    I remember seeing an image of a proposed elevated tram line for Market St. in SF which ran above the sidewalks, delivering passengers into stations which were inside the buildings, and creating an arcade for people below.

  9. Arcades are of sufficient importance to count as one of the "Six Essential Design Elements" in the proposed Maine Piscataquis Village Project. We haven't gotten as far as legally defining property rights, but we expect a public right of way to be secured for the sidewalk, and private ownership rights granted to the abutting building owner.

    An architect student friend of mine arrived in central Bologna for the first time, looked around for about 15 minutes, and asked, "Why aren't all cities built this way?" Unfortunate we've decided to "take" private property by imposing setback restrictions instead of "giving" air space rights over the sidewalk to abutters.