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What makes a great city street? Consider these examples

Kaid Benfield

Posted September 6, 2012 in Green Enterprise, Health and the Environment, Living Sustainably

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  (courtesy of Victor Dover)

  Church Street, Charleston, South Carolina

My friend Victor Dover has taught me more about the importance of streets to community, and the characteristics that can make them great, than I ever might have imagined.  I’m still learning, and it’s a fascinating journey.  He’s about to share his knowledge with all of us, as he reports that he and his urban compadre John Massengale are writing a book on the subject to be published next year.  I don’t know John as well as I know Victor, but he seems to know his stuff, too; this one promises to be a must-have when it comes out.

For the past couple of months, Victor has been hinting at some of what may be in the book through posting a series of “street of the day” photos on his Facebook wall.  With his kind permission, I am now able to show some of the images to you.  As you view them, consider what’s appealing about each street in the photo, what might be transferable to other communities.

  (courtesy of Victor Dover)

  Santa Maria Street, Coral Gables, Florida

Santa Maria Street is sheltered with mature trees.  This is vital to facilitate walking in warm climates, and trees also deliver a range of additional sustainability benefits, including absorbing carbon emissions and helping to clean the air.  I also like the way the low fencing along this street adds definition to the block while not restricting visual openness.

Note that in the photo of Charleston's Church Street, at the top of the post, there is another approach to providing shade in a warm climate:  an arcade.  The church at the end of the street also provides what architects call a "terminated vista," or a prominent and appealing visual "anchor" at the end of the street.  When you're there, you're in not just a street but a place.

  (courtesy of Victor Dover)

  East 70th Street, New York City

New York City presents a vastly different environment than does Charleston or Coral Gables.  Here we see the introduction of walkable amenities such as restaurants, and the use of urban landscaping around the buildings to soften the concrete and stone.  Metered parking also makes an appearance.  We take it for granted, but on-street parking buffers walkers from the flow of traffic, providing them with an additional sense of comfort in a highly urban space.  The more comfortable we are walking, the more sustainability and health benefits we can enjoy.

  (courtesy of Victor Dover)

  Leidesgracht, Amsterdam

Talk about multi-modal!  This street has a canal, bicycling, cars, at least one motor scooter, and space for pedestrians.  This makes it a good example of a “complete street” that accommodates different types of users, while still not being so wide as to prevent a sense that one is in a neighborhood, not on a thoroughfare.  Victor and I had a conversation last month about the difference between the kinds of streets he prefers and those considered “complete” in current transportation parlance.  I came away with a strengthened awareness that a street can be complete in the sense of being multi-modal – no small feat, by the way – but still lack greatness, because of low “walk appeal,” to borrow Steve Mouzon’s phrase.  A truly great street will be complete not just in the roadway and sidewalks but also alongside them.

Of the Leidesgracht, Victor notes that “cyclists are not a separate species in Amsterdam.”  (For more photos of street life in Amsterdam, go here.)

  (courtesy of Victor Dover)

  St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans

Speaking of multi-modal, I love the soft, grassy bed for the St. Charles streetcar in New Orleans.  This provides not just an additional touch of nature for city dwellers who don’t get enough of it but also green infrastructure for absorbing rainwater and keeping runoff (or at least some of it) out of sewage systems and receiving waterways.  This is more common in other parts of the world, and I hope it becomes popular here in the US.

  (courtesy of Victor Dover)

  Boulevard Montmartre, Paris

I could walk in Paris for days without stopping.

  (courtesy of Victor Dover)

  Beauchamp Place, London

Unlike a boulevard in Paris, Beauchamp Place is narrow, with narrow sidewalks, too.  But it doesn’t need to accommodate the same high volume of use, and what it does have is an inviting sense of human scale.  The buildings are close enough, tall enough and just varied enough to provide a pleasant and interesting walking experience without being so tall as to block light and, for me at least, make the stroll far less appealing.  Maybe someone from the UK can post in a comment what the two parallel stripes along the left side of the roadway signify.

  (courtesy of Victor Dover)

  Queens Road, Charlotte, North Carolina

This street in Charlotte’s Myers Park neighborhood is, I believe, a divided roadway with two lanes in each direction separated by a median.  It’s a wealthy neighborhood, so some readers might be dismissive of its beauty, but the mature trees (in another warm climate) are awesome.

Victor writes:

[Noted 19th-century landscape architect] John Nolen's striking Queens Road, Myers Park, Charlotte.  How would Nolen have reacted if the DOT said, 'no trees’ or ‘maybe we'll add crepe myrtles [less effective for shade] in a later phase’?  The sidewalks are placed behind the trees, not the other way around. Get it, public works department?”

I should note here that Charlotte has been doing some great things lately with transit-oriented development and street design.

  (courtesy of Victor Dover)

  Main Street, Galena, Illinois

Classic 19th-century Americana.  Victor notes:

“The superfluous ‘brick accents’ mania is kept to a minimum, the exception being the strip where the lampposts are placed, which is too fussy. But otherwise there are no bulbouts, zebra-stripe marking, or any of the other usual wacky overdone streetscape items.”

My own opinion is that the brick accents are just fine.  We all have our preferences, I suppose.  But I am glad that the city hasn’t mucked up the street with the other trendy design features Victor mentions.  Those things can be useful when the situation calls for it, and if they are designed well.  But this small city simply doesn’t need them.

Having previously profiled some of the work of Victor’s architecture and planning firm (including the amazingly forward-thinking comprehensive plan they helped guide for El Paso), I’m betting that Victor and John’s work on street design will be fantastic.  I can’t wait to see more.

Related posts:

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in other national media.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s Sustainable Communities Video Channels.

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Comments

Dewi WalkerSep 6 2012 10:19 AM

Kaid,

Regarding your question about Beauchamp Place, provided the double lines along the edge of the pavement are yellow (I'm assuming they are) then it means "no parking".

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double-yellow_line

Dewi

Kirk WSep 6 2012 12:36 PM

Ha! Even before I read this comment about the Galena photo, I thought: "A bulb out would be nice there..."

Qatzel OkSep 6 2012 09:28 PM

While vistas, streetscapes and furniture are important, the only street photos that look inviting in the above assortment are the ones with human beings walking or biking in them. Parked cars simply don't animate, and a dead street - even if lovely to look at - is still a corpse.

Jeffrey JakucykSep 7 2012 01:25 PM

There's a bit too much emphasis on "green" in this post, IMO. Yes it's nice in some cases, especially the streetcar right-of-way (which also eats up noise too), but it seems like nearly every example is extolling the greenness above all else. Go to Italy, and even many parts of Paris too, and you'll find very little green space or even street trees. When the streets are wide enough (and thus unpleasant enough on their own) then you do need something to help soften the edges. On the other hand, when you have really narrow streets then a few flower pots and window boxes can do the job. In those sorts of environments you don't need large shade trees in hot climates because the buildings do the shading. Even in colder climates you get benefits because the narrow streets help to chop up the harsh winds.

Fenno HoffmanSep 7 2012 02:42 PM

Thanks Kaid. Can't wait for their book. IMO, designers should be cautious about fetishizing the street, festooning it with geegaws (especially traffic signs) and remember, 10% street, 90% surroundings, it's the edges that matter most, and KINS, (keep in narrow, stupid). :-)

MarcSep 8 2012 06:36 AM

BTW the lines on the road in London are parking restrictions, known as Double Yellow Lines. See here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double-yellow_line

Comments are closed for this post.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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