How to build great streets

Legare Street, Charleston, where trees emerge straight from the pavement (breaking the usual rules of street engineering), creating a beautiful scene. Reprinted with permission of John Wiley & Sons, John Massengale and Victor Dover, Street Design

Note: This article is in the January-February print issue of BCT. 

Is the Complete Streets movement bringing order and safety to America’s streets or is it producing over-engineered thoroughfares that make pedestrians feel out of place?

Are modern roundabouts civilizing traffic movement or are they unnecessarily complicating the urban environment?

Those are two of the questions that John Massengale and Victor Dover’s long and often eloquent new book, Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns, forces readers to confront.

The authors are experienced hands at New Urbanism. Massengale is a New York architect and urban designer who, way back in 1981, teamed up with Robert A.M. Stern to write The Anglo-American Suburb, a concise and still-useful guide to the best early suburban planning. Dover is cofounder of Dover, Kohl & Partners town planners in Coral Gables, Florida, and a former chair of the Congress for New Urbanism.

Street Design is beautifully written and generously illustrated; hundreds of photos and drawings complement tens of thousands of words of text. “For this book,” Massengale and Dover explain, “we made lists of our favorite streets, and then examined what made them special. We asked our colleagues to tell us about the streets they admire, and we went into the library and looked online to find other lists of great streets. Then we went out to reexamine many of the streets in person—photographing them, taking measurements, and observing the way people behave and interact on them.”

The result is a book that carefully examines many historic streets, and moves from there to analyzing streets that have been designed or altered in recent years. The authors care enormously about the psychology of the street. Their concern about the feeling that the street imparts, and about whether the street is rewarding to pedestrians, leads them to criticize some of the designs associated with the Complete Streets movement.

The intent of the National Complete Streets Coalition, now part of Smart Growth America, is to ensure that people of all sorts—including motorists, transit users, cyclists, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities—are properly served by the country’s streets and roads. Massengale and Dover praise this as a policy goal, and applaud the fact that hundreds of municipalities have adopted Complete Street regulations. But too often, according to the authors, the built result is a “formulaic, seemingly ubiquitous use of yellow pedestrian crossings, red bus lanes, green bicycle tracks, ugly bumpouts, and uglier white plastic sticks.”

Red Road, Coral Gables, Florida — Plastic sticks are everywhere in modern streets. Reprinted with permission of John Wiley & Sons, John Massengale and Victor Dover, Street Design

New York City, which acted forcefully under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan to make biking safer and to convert excess pavement into convivial gathering areas, provides examples both good and bad. On the one hand, new public plazas furnished with movable chairs at Times Square and Madison Square have proven hugely popular. On the other hand, some of the streets that have been outfitted with dedicated bike lanes look harsh and cluttered. The highway-scale markings on many redesigned streets “are psychologically uncomfortable for anyone on foot,” Massengale and Dover assert. Looking at the examples shown in this book, I’d have to agree.

Madison Square, Broadway at 23rd Street, NY. “Tactical urbanism at its best,” Dover and Massengale say. New Yorkers immediately started enjoying the former expanse of asphalt after NYC DOT placed boulders to close large parts of the street to cars. Sections intended for seating were covered in a sand-colored, textured paint, and lightweight outdoor furniture was scattered around. Reprinted with permission of John Wiley & Sons, John Massengale and Victor Dover,
Street Design

Many features introduced by transportation departments reflect an engineering mindset; they lack the subtle and humane touch we ought to be striving for. Why? Partly because specialists with narrow outlooks are still too much in charge. As Massengale and Dover see it, there is a heavy-handed attempt to “move vehicles (now including bicycles) through the city,” to the detriment of the experience of being in the city.

The authors find similar flaws in modern roundabouts, a traffic device that has proliferated in the past 20 years. “Today we have suburban-style traffic-calming techniques that don’t work for the creation or restoration of walkable places being used in towns and cities,” Massengale and Dover warn. Aggressive striping, “splitter islands” at the entrance to the circle, signs big enough to be readable at 55 mph, and an absence of trees combine to make pedestrians nervous about such roundabouts.

Some readers may find Massengale and Dover’s treatment of Complete Streets too negative. It’s possible that the complaints in this book will spark friction between some New Urbanists, on the one hand, and some Complete Streets advocates and bike enthusiasts, on the other. My sense, however, is that Massengale and Dover’s outspokenness does us a service, by articulating a latent discomfort with clumsily engineered complete streets and by sparking public discussion of how we can do better. Only by recognizing the flaws in some of the recently engineered “solutions” can we push design to a higher level. Street design requires more than engineering; it demands placemaking. 

From historic to brand-new

The book unfolds in six chapters. First comes an overview of streets and how they generate satisfying places. Then an analysis of historic streets—the authors identify “eleven essential street types,” from boulevards to neighborhood streets to pedestrian passages and “step streets.” Next the authors examine “street systems and networks” of various kinds, beginning with the streets of Charleston and Savannah and proceeding to Paris, Melbourne, Bologna, London, Jeddah, Columbus (Ohio), Forest Hills Gardens (Queens, New York), and Amsterdam.

Koningsplein, Amsterdam. Street nicely accommodates cyclists and mass transit as well as pedestrians. Reprinted with permission of John Wiley & Sons, John Massengale and Victor Dover,
Street Design

From there, it’s on to exploring retrofitted streets in cities, suburbs, and small towns in the US, England, and France. A particularly poignant story is told about the threat currently posed to the handsome old town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where the state Transportation Department wants to cut down tall rows of half-century-old Bradford Pear trees on Main Street and replace them with new trees that Massengale and Dover say will “never grow to the height or the width required for a leafy canopy over the sidewalk or a ‘wall’ of trees along the road.”

A chapter on new streets, including Main Street in Rosemary Beach, Florida; Longmoor Street in Poundbury, England; and Galt House Drive in New Town at St. Charles, Missouri, argues for the importance of street-oriented architecture. Massengale and Dover express as much concern for the buildings, vegetation, and spaces that make a place appealing as they do for the street’s travel surface.
The authors’ love of historic streets, where well-proportioned and thoughtfully sited architecture gives the street a sense of enclosure, comes through strongly. They attribute the beauty of streets in Charleston to local traditions rooted in Classicism and to long, narrow lots presided over by houses with facades and side-porches that come right up to the sidewalk. “The regular pattern of yard-porch-house, yard-porch-house along the street establishes a spatial rhythm,” they observe. Charleston’s, the authors suggest, is one of many patterns that can give a street grace and life.

To make outstanding places, Massengale and Dover believe, efforts must be made to coordinate the width of the street, the height and rhythm of buildings, placement of sidewalks, and the character of plantings. Appealing patterns of sun and shade will invite human use; good proportions will help people feel the space is meant for them.

Reinforcing this book’s authoritativeness are short sections by distinguished contributors such as Leon Krier, Andres Duany, Douglas Duany, Stefanos Polyzoides, John Norquist, Chuck Marohn, Tom Low, Marieanne Khoury-Vogt, and Erik Vogt, plus a foreword by Prince Charles and an afterword by James Howard Kunstler.

Some topics in these 415 pages, such as Health Impact Assessments, seem a stretch for a book on street design. At times, I wished the authors had stuck closer to their central topic and not brought in so much tangential information. But what strikes one reader as overkill will impress another as generosity.

On the whole, Street Design conveys a vast amount of information and does so with wit, intelligence, and subtlety. Every New Urbanist, bike lane advocate and Complete Streets proponent should read this magnificent book.

Street Design: published by Wiley, 2014, 415 pp., $85 hardcover, $59.99 e-book

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