If a street is to provide the sense of enclosure that pedestrians desire--if it is to feel like a room--it cannot be too wide. To be precise, the relationship of width to height cannot exceed a certain ratio, generally recognized to be about 6:1. If the distance from building front to building front is more than six times the height of those building fronts, the feeling of enclosure is lost, and with it the sense of place. Even the 6:1 ratio is wider than most successful public spaces. Many theorists locate the ideal ratio at 1:1; above 6:1, streets fail to attract pedestrian life.I was walking in SF's Union Square a while back when it struck me that it comes pretty close to a 1:1 ratio, maybe going just a little bit in the other direction. And I must say, it does an excellent job of making a person feel cocooned in a cozy little playground of wealth.(p. 78)
The ratio of driving space to sidewalk space is also roughly 1:1. Not surprisingly, this makes for a very pedestrian-friendly environment.
Even better to me is Maiden Lane. At the risk of sounding like a nut, alleys are to me just about the ideal width of street. The buildings on Maiden Lane are 2 or 3 times higher than the streets are wide, but I think it still works.
This is getting off on a tangent here, but the New York Times had a good article a while back about how San Francisco makes full use of its alleys for retail and commercial purposes. I'm telling you, it's the narrow streets!
A good street is like a funnel, moving people through it. It's a place that's as easy to walk down as it is to drive on, and sometimes faster. It's a gathering place for people, a place where things happen. (And yes, sometimes that includes protests that can turn violent. That's the risk we take when we commit to having a public sphere of some sort. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater!) Anyways, with that in mind, I thought I'd rate a few streets in Oakland.
Broadway (downtown Oakland)
I have to be little harder on the dto than I would be on other areas--it's downtown, it's supposed to have good streets. The problem with downtown Oakland, design-wise, is that it's too inconsistent. There's never just a steady block of tall buildings on both sides, so it never seems to build up enough momentum as a bustling district. The effect is visually disorienting:
The streets are too wide, with too much deference paid to cars. It would also help if there weren't an asphalt parking lot on practically every block. Seriously, those are the worst.
Some of the side streets off Broadway actually have a lot more character than Broadway itself.Now that's a street I can get behind!
9th Street @ Washington (Old Oakland)
Although I don't hang out there on a regular basis, Old Oakland is one of my favorite parts of the Town. Washington Street, shown above, comes pretty close to the 1:1 height to width ratio with a fairly narrow street, consistent building heights, and wide sidewalks. This neighborhood always seems to have a steady flow to it, with a nice mix of retail, office space, housing, and nightlife. My only problem is that I wish Old Oakland were bigger. There seem to be only two or three blocks left of it. (This corner was just about the only one that made for a good picture.) They just don't make neighborhoods like they used to.
Grand Avenue @ Mandana
Considering its name, Grand Avenue is a disappointment. It's just too damn wide to be bustling. Which is a shame, because it has everything else going for it--nice retail, good restaurants, cool buildings. But look at the picture above and ask yourself: would you want to cross the street?
International @ 35th Ave
Cool Hand Luke has a good post up over at 38th Notes about International, or as he would prefer, East 14th (Which I can't type without thinking of Keak Da Sneak saying "E-One-Fo to da hills!") Whatever you call it, this street is cracking around 35th Ave and through the 20s. This block is interesting because it shows some ways to make up for the inherent problems of wide streets. Although the strict height-to-width ratio is probably 3 or 4 to 1, it looks more like 1:1. A fat median strip has been created, making the street look much narrower. Further, not one but two rows of well-tended trees are growing on the median strip, along with rows on the sidewalks. Even though the trees are still young, they're already helping create a canopy effect, helping to enclose the street. (See my earlier post on this subject.) Also, notice how the sidewalk extends out, making it easier to cross. And of course, the buildings tend to be 2 stories, with very little space taken up by surface parking lots, which are poisonous to a street's health.
If you don't think these things make a difference, compare the picture above with the one below, at International around 60th Ave:
College Ave (Rockridge)
College Avenue is visually similar to International. (There's not always a correlation between healthy streets and income.) It gets extra points for having narrower streets--one lane each way! Because this is a wealthy area, the trees are mature enough to create a full canopy, which helps makes up for the short building heights. And the side streets are all relatively narrow (and pleasant), making the whole area walkable.
So there you go. Hopefully I've made the case that narrow streets are good, wide streets are bad. (Just in case any of you are about to go build some streets and aren't sure what size to make them!) Oakland, and other old cities, tend to have narrower, more walkable streets than cities built since the dawn of the car era, which goes a long way towards explaining why I live here. (Most streets out in the 'burbs would get between a C and an F if I were the one doing the grading.) Narrow streets are more of the historical norm anyway--apparently most of the streets in ancient Egypt were only a few feet wide. If my perspective is a minority one, at least history's on my side.