There’s No Formula for Designing City Streets

How Boston’s Back Bay Succeeded Without a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

September 23, 2014

Architect / Urban Designer, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This was adapted from a book review originally published in Landscape Architecture.

Designing good streets is of increasing importance, as our rediscovered interest in city life makes us recall that city streets were once places to be, not merely conveyers of motorized traffic. Indeed, it is hard to evoke a great urban scene without evoking special streets and public spaces. Yet today’s discussions, and even reassuring sound bites such as “complete streets,” tend to focus on technocratic solutions — painted bicycle lanes, curb bump-outs, boldly identified crosswalks and designated bus lanes. While an improvement over undifferentiated tarmac, such tactics stop short of the full intent of complete streets, which is not simply to enhance movement, even if now for a variety of mobility choices, but to create urban places.

There is no universal form for a great street (short of our touristic seductions for the meandering, walled-by-old-architecture, narrow, cobbled, car-free lanes of the preindustrial European city). Take Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, and draw a cross section though each of its six parallel streets.

I would start with Storrow Drive, too highway-like for some given its four restricted-access, speed-encouraging lanes absent any pedestrian accommodation, but providing an amazing urban experience, as one remains “trapped” between the Charles River and its green esplanade on one side, and the continuous five-story 19th-century urban wall on the other. It is always a visual pleasure to drive along, even when congested.

The next two — Beacon and Marlborough — are exclusively residential. Plenty of cars move along them, but they have a special domestic grace given the mature continuous street canopy; generous brick sidewalks; well manicured, narrow front gardens; and graceful stoops leading up to the bay-fronted, red brick townhouses, now subdivided into apartments by floor. No boutiques or Starbucks in sight, but a pleasure to walk or cycle along.

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Commonwealth Avenue
(courtesy Ingfbruno/Wikipedia)

Next is Commonwealth Avenue — stately, elegant, calming, with its grand center greensward — holding its own spatially against any Parisian boulevard. Then comes Newbury Street, its opposite, with the lower floors of its masonry townhouses “bastardized” by all forms of modern shop fronts, front gardens converted to café seating. The coolest locals and most cosmopolitan tourists populate the somewhat narrow sidewalks by the thousands, and cars are in gridlock more often than not. For people-watching and -bumping-into (and expensive shopping), this is as Ramblas-like as you will find on this side of the Atlantic, offering an amazing counterpoint to sylvan Commonwealth Avenue a short block away.

Then there is Boylston Street, a lovely mess: lots of through traffic, remnants of traditional architecture on one side, mid-20th-century superblocks on the other, but full of life, enjoying shops, restaurants, businesses and ecclesiastic, cultural and civic institutions, all forming a rich mixed-use stew along one’s way. Oh, and there is a subway line running underneath.

Six memorable parallel streets, five completely different characters, even with a more-or-less similar continuous historic architecture as background. Throw away the cookbook. Sometimes, it is the throngs of people who matter most and the stuff that attracts them. In other places it is a special landscape, an architectural aura, spatial intimacy or generosity of scale, all better experienced with few people about. Still others convey a domestic tranquility, absent modern consumerist appendages like stores. Ingenuity in the design of special objects such as paving, seating, lighting and kiosks can add charm but are rarely what make the difference, and quality is not always measured by how many or how few cars abound. There is no single design formula. Among the constants: well-defined and suited to local functions, offering a spatial or human vitality, and providing a measure of pleasure.

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Newbury Street
(courtesy Ingfbruno/Wikipedia)

The 20th century was not, for the most part, very good for the creation of humane streetscapes. We were too mesmerized by the possibilities of speed, personal mobility, mass production and similar promises of progress for the Modern Age. The idea of streets emphasizing pedestrian amenities seemed quaint, characteristic more of old small towns than of a contemporary metropolis. Sigfried Giedion, among the most powerful polemicists of the Modern Movement, even called for their elimination. Writing in Space Time, and Architecture during the 1950s, he proclaimed, “The first thing to do is to abolish the rue corridor.” Traditional streets for Giedion no longer served much purpose. He insisted that the design of the modern city required “bold saber strokes.”

American cities have suffered variously from the bold saber strokes administered over the past half-century and more. The challenge is to have us remember that streets serve as public places, not arteries alone. To compel the design professions and regulatory agencies to get more into the fray. To reserve “bold saber strokes” for the reintroduction of, say, bicycles. To employ design tactics that adapt our streets to the multiple needs of urban life rather than only to movement.

In a car or on foot along a dull street, we are concerned only with getting to a destination. But the seductions along an interesting path are what make pedestrian urbanism and city living so enjoyable. Our streets must certainly enable efficient, universal movement, but also move us by virtue of their humanitarian purpose.

Banner image courtesy of Rick Berk/Wikipedia.

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