USP514: Thinking about streetscapes

Hello Streetscape Team! Please take this post with a grain of skeptical salt. I want you to push new ideas and innovate. So here I am going to post some strong opinions of my own about streets; but I phrase it that way because I want you to take these ideas seriously, but not as Gospel.

There is a book called Great Streets written by Allan Jacobs in 1993, that is frequently used as a reference because it includes the actual dimensions of many beloved urban streets–some of which are famous, some of which are known only locally. Several years later he followed up with the Boulevard Book, which was the basis of much of the design for Octavia Boulevard (which was done by Jake and his wife, Elizabeth MacDonald). I helped finish Great Streets in 1992; my main contribution was to pester Jake into hiring me to finish the square-mile urban-fabric diagrams in the back of the book. I have also been tracking the research of Ria Hutabarat-Lo, who researched the street-systems of Jakarta after years of professional work in Australia. Here is what I have taken from these lessons:

1. We should consider making street-sections very simple. As far as I can tell, curbs and raised sidewalks originated from the era of un-drained, muddy streets, being used by carriages which had very poor steering and very poor braking. On very busy thoroughfares (such as Shoreline and maybe Rengstorff in our site), maybe there should still be curbs and the roadway should be 6″ lower than the surrounding surfaces. But for neighborhood streets, we may want a simple v-section that slopes rainwater to drain-grates at the midline of the street. This would make it easier for wheelchair-users and freight-deliverers to move around in public space.

2. In Southeast Asia, some of the most lively streets are what Ria H.Lo calls “shared streets.” They are more-or-less level paved spaces shared by schoolkids, moped-drivers, neighbors sitting or working outside of their houses, and the occasional car. In the Netherlands, some traffic engineers have removed all the pavement-markings from intersections so that car drivers have to think through how they will negotiate with pedestrians and bicyclists. Apparently, car drivers tend to drive much more slowly through these shared spaces, because there are no signs, paint markings, nor curbs to signal dedicated automotive spaces. Over time, the advantage of a shared street design is that space which is currently claimed by car-drivers may be ceded over to other modes of transportation, such as bicyclists.

Below, I am posting a series of photos I took in the Marigny and French Quarters of New Orleans in 2013. Please feel free to use these in your presentations for this course.


What I would like you to think about with these pictures is: How to the buildings relate to the street? How is the street-space shaped by this arrangement? In central New Orleans, most of the houses have no setback at all; or if they do, it is only the depth of the porch (see above, on the left).


Although the houses are directly on the street, privacy is not a problem. Shutters, curtains, and shades do fine. Furthermore, contemporary energy-efficient windows are double-glazed which means they muffle outside noise. And, since North Bayshore is near Moffett Field, it may make sense to require that new buildings have decent soundproofing anyway.


A 3-foot gap between buildings is enough for wheelchair users, furniture movers, and firefighters to gain access to back yards.


Streets in New Orleans do have curbs (which made sense in the horse-and-carriage days), but what really keeps vehicles off the sidewalk are the posts of the porches. In San Francisco, the bay windows of houses can extend over the property line up to three feet into public space. But in New Orleans, they can completely cover the public sidewalk, to shade it. That is a reasonable trade-off, since the private landowners are typically held responsible for the maintenance of the sidewalks in front of their properties–even though it is public space (protected by 1st Amendment rights to speech and public assembly).


Some friends of mine bought a decommissioned church in the Marigny neighborhood. I just like this picture.


The porch space, with a deep cantilevered overhang, can make a great transition between public and private spaces. I like this image because it is non-special. Garbage cans, potted plants, and a pickup truck. But the arrangement works.


Like San Francisco architecture, New Orleans architecture is actually quite simple. Late-20th-century suburban architecture includes all sorts of gables, dormers, and massing changes in the houses. But the typical 19th-century urban houses in SF and NO were basically boxes. The details were fancier, especially at the points where you would actually touch the building (handrails, door-handles). But decorative trim was reserved for the front fa├žade (literally, the face) of the building. And even that was mass-produced, milled wood. It actually made construction easier, because decorative trim covers up corners and edges that are otherwise difficult to construct in an attractive way. Like the image above, the next one below illustrates these points.



Porches with a slight setback. Similar architectural vocabulary as the east-side of San Francisco, and much of Berkeley.


Gotta love the personalized infrastructure.


This resident has done a fantastic job with the ten feet of public space in front of their house. It may make sense to specify streetscape guidelines in a way that allows for some variety, such as brick sidewalks. Also, note that those are real, operable window-shutters. Useful in hurricane territory, but also a straightforward way to secure a ground-floor residence.


In the French Quarter itself, the building-density is about twice as high as Marigny. What I like about these buildings is the way they define the street-space in layers. The porch post and railings are made of wrought iron (also possible in ‘Spanish’ style here in California), which means that the outermost layer of the porches is a subtle, screen-layer. Then the buildings themselves are very solid, firmly defining the space at the public/private property boundary.

However, in the building shown below, an act of urban horticulture gives the residents much more privacy but also gives a great deal to the street at the same time.

130819_PorchAsFarm_5597 At the east end of the French Quarter the streets are a little wider, leaving room for trees (see below): 130819_Resi-SameFabric_5550

This house still has an intimate relationship with the street, but the feeling of the street is much more relaxed, even grand.


Simple materials: wood, brick, concrete, and paint. We don’t just have to look to the past to think about sustainability, but the relative material poverty of the 19th century meant a more efficient and direct use of materials. From a social-justice perspective, that century was a disaster; but from a materials-use perspective, we can learn something.