Take three parts retail, two parts commercial, mix in some residential, add a dash of trees, mix it in a bowl with traffic, and spread evenly over an urban landscape. If only creating an urban street was this easy.
Fortunately for us it’s not or we’d be out of a job. But for the sake of discussion, let’s simplify a complicated and time-consuming process into a 30-minute recipe by outlining the common elements and strategies that set the foundation for developing a successful urban street. We also need to define our context. The type of urban street being designed here is for an area with a FAR (floor area ratio) of at least 1.5, lined with 4-6 story buildings. Now that we’ve determined what we’re cooking, here are the ingredients:
Access – There is no point in creating a place if you can’t get to it. The street has to be designed to accommodate multimodal routes of transportation. The automobile is here to stay and cannot be ignored, so we must design for it. Public transportation such as bus lanes, cable car or light rail lanes, and subway access should be encouraged. Bicycle lanes help to alleviate vehicular traffic and conflicts with pedestrians. Pedestrian access should be given a priority since pedestrians play the most important role in the success of an urban street. Without them, you have no life.
Boundaries – Built and implied boundaries give order to a street. Conflicts between restaurant seating, pedestrian walks, and vehicular traffic can be avoided through the use of lane striping, signage, curbs, paving, landscaping, walls/fences, and architectural features. Boundaries are needed to avoid potential conflicts, improve safety, and facilitate travel down a street.
Street Section – A 1000 foot long street between intersections with more than 6 lanes of speeding traffic is no longer a street; it’s a boulevard. The width of the street, number of intersections/crosswalks, and speed of vehicular traffic all play a role on how interactive the two sides of a street are, and how comfortable the user will be crossing it. Intersections/crosswalks should be spaced every 400-600 feet (if local road codes allow) to avoid mid-block crossing. Street widths should be limited to 40-60 feet and include parallel parking. On-street parking and narrower street sections can serve as traffic calming measures for a more pleasurable experience.
Physical Comfort – If you are not comfortable walking down a street then you are not likely to visit it again. Street trees and awnings can provide much needed shade in the hot summer, shelter in the rain, and relief from wind gusts. Safety or the feeling of being safe is important as well. There should be adequate lighting to illuminate the path or to help identify objects in the distance. Walking and driving surfaces should also be maintained and thoughtfully designed. Seating areas should be included to allow the user to rest, people watch, or interact with other users. There should be transparency between spaces or uses so that there are no surprises around the next corner. Landscaping, awnings, signs, and architectural elements should be maintained and/or designed so not to impede vision, create a tripping hazard or pose a head clearance issue.Street Sketch Courtesy Luis F. González
Mixed Uses – The sensible mixing of a variety of uses such as retail, commercial, entertainment (restaurants, cafés, pubs, libraries, theaters/movie complexes, etc.), and residential can complement and support one another. The residential and commercial users require food, shopping, and entertainment destinations. Retail, food, and entertainment venues benefit from a steady source of users from residential and commercial areas. A variety of uses also prevent a street from being a boring string of one-type uses that are active only during a given time of day or week.
Visual Variety – Architecture is extremely important for an urban street. The buildings frame the street and set the tone. The architecture should not be plain and the façades should not be flat. Materials, colors, and architectural articulation, fenestration, and style should capture the user’s attention. It should also serve as a place marker; something that says, “You have arrived!” An anchor building such as a grocery store or open space like a plaza or park can be used as a place marker. Visual stimulation will also force vehicular traffic to slow down and occupants to appreciate the street being driven on. Paving, landscaping, signs, and lights can also be a visual amenity. These elements should be taken into consideration when designing.
Visual Continuity – A couple of abandoned buildings in a row, vacant space (not designed or planned), or a change in streetscape can disrupt or break a street’s continuity and end the positive experience. A drastic downgrade in streetscape can force the user to believe that the journey down the street has ended and there is no reason to continue. If the visual interest of a street is continuous and not scattered, then that urban street becomes an urban space; an interesting experience. Without visual continuity, then a street is nothing more than just a street; not a space or place to experience.
The Frosting – Granite curbs, brick sidewalks, cobblestone streets, 30 foot tall street trees, and glass and steel buildings are not required to make a great urban street. Although they are great qualities, maintenance is the real frosting here. Street paving should be maintained and free of pot holes. Walks should be clear of trash and suitable for walking. Seating areas and bus shelters should be clean and usable. Street lights should be functioning. Street trees should be limbed up a minimum of 6’ so not to impede walking and dead street trees replaced. Landscaping should be maintained and clean of rubbish. Tree wells should be designed to prevent street tree root binding which will ultimately result in roots pushing paving upwards and creating tripping hazards. Trash receptacles should be present and not overflowing. Buildings should not be boarded up or vacant and should be maintained. The highest quality materials can be used but if there is no love, care, and attention given to the street, then its character will be lost. What’s the point of having a silverlined street if it’s tarnished?
This 30-minute recipe for designing an urban street is just that; a quick recipe. More thought and attention should be given when designing a street so that it becomes a pleasurable experience. You want to create a destination point, a positive memory, a notable place. Anyone can lay out a street; instead; try to create a great street!
Resource Information: Jacobs, Allan B. Great Streets. MIT Press. August 4, 1995; Lecture. DC Builds: What Makes Great Street? National Building Museum. Washington, D.C. February 28, 2008.
Luis González, ASLA, has been working in the Washington, DC metropolitan area for over 6 years and is currently a senior planner with Rodgers Consulting Inc, specializing in mixed use transit oriented developments and new urbanism neighborhood design. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org