The vital street

Whether you live in the heart of a great metropolis, in far-flung suburbia, in a town now converted to a bedroom community, or a town that’s a place unto itself, the heart of your community is found in the way it treats the street.

It’s tempting to think of the street as something that has to keep moving. But that’s where most communities go wrong.

The street is a place to stop. That means designing places people want to go to and stay in, not ones where they go because they must.

Doing that doesn’t mean you can’t have cars moving on the road. The Champs Élysée in Paris is filled with people stopping for this, that and the other, or just meandering along, while, beside them, twelve lanes of traffic flow.

They’re insulated by parked cars, wide sidewalks, trees, etc. You’d take a coffee at an outdoor table on the Champs. Few of us would willingly sit at the outdoor table of a Starbucks beside a six-lane arterial road serving shopping centres here in this country.

The way to think of the street is as a public room.

Rooms have bounds. If you’ve ever been in a house where the rooms are too big, you know that somewhat uncomfortable feeling of being “lost” in them. (I was once in a private residence with a great room for “conversation” that was equipped with twenty-four living room suites. Even with all that furniture, the room was too big to be comfortable: it felt like I was at a convention in a hotel ballroom.)

Streets need bounds, too. Trees, lane breaks, view breaks all contribute to these.

Highway engineers hate T-junctions, for instance. Traffic must slow for the turn.

Outdoor room makers love them. They allow a building of civic importance to be sited at the “T”, framing the space.

But even where the road stretches onward block after block, framing from street furniture, trees, and the design on the buildings along the street can frame the space and bring it down to the human scale.

I don’t have to look at the architectural standards of a Paris to see this. Go to New York, and pick a side street on the East or West side. The brownstones come in many styles, but all are about the same height. At the end of each long block, where an avenue awaits, you see the heights of the buildings facing the avenue pick up slightly. That extra storey or two is more than sufficient to provide a frame.

Traditional Main Street styles in North American towns provided framing with the angle parking (further separation of moving traffic from people), and the mix of residents (apartments above stores), retail, light manufacturing shops and professional offices.

Streetcar suburbs in North American cities provided neighbourhoods with framing: leafy streets with houses, typically two storey, moving away from the line; three storey buildings on the line (forming end-of-block frames). The street furniture of stops, benches, shelters, etc. every two or three blocks created “stopping places” for the eye.

These are places worth coming to, worth lingering in, worth contributing to, worth keeping safe and well.

Broken teeth in the armature of the street — parking lots, many deserted buildings, plunking down solid walls because a building has turned its back to the street — have the opposite effect. They make even the most well-laid-out street unwelcoming.

Too many of our streets have taken sidewalk space away to add another traffic lane, or made themselves less welcoming by trimming back the trees, or removing the street furnishings (we’re afraid of the cost of maintaining benches, bicycle racks, garbage pails, etc.). Bushes in planters — a common bit of modern “greenscaping” — don’t do the job.

Even the most miserable shopping strip by the highway can be renovated and turned into something that’s different. It just takes the will to a place worth loving, rather than something to pass through, teeth gritted and knuckles white on the wheel, while going to yet another chain store that could be anywhere.

Communities that want to attract new businesses, new industry (as opposed to “industries”), new commerce and thus have more revenues to work with, might well think about how they could become welcoming places to linger.

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