Monday, January 12, 2009

Oakland Streets

One of the most important factors in determining the look and life of a city is the width of its streets. It's counterintuitive, but when it comes to streets, I'd say the narrower the better--especially in our car culture, where the temptation is always to blow streets out to enormous proportions. This is addressed in what is probably my favorite introductory book about city planning, Suburban Nation:
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.
(p. 78)
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.

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)
Grade: B

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)
Grade: A
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
Grade: C
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
Grade: B+

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:

Nuff said.

College Ave (Rockridge)
Grade: A-

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.


Eric Fischer said...

You might be interested in seeing Oakland's pre-automobile sidewalk width law. San Francisco's law was slightly more generous with sidewalks than Oakland's, but not as much as I would have expected given how different the cities feel now. The part I really don't understand is how Piedmont Avenue works as well as it does given how tiny its sidewalks are.

Crimson said...

Thanks for that link, maybe I'll put it up on my sidebar. Piedmont Ave is still pretty narrow, as streets go these days. Two lanes for traffic and two lanes for parking. Plus, it's a two-way street, which has a traffic-calming effect, making it more pedestrian friendly. I guess that makes up for the small sidewalks.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post and there is definitely a good "ratio" of driving space to walking space (with definite priority on the pedestrian! :) ). That said, as a NYC resident and as someone involved in planning/real estate finance, some of the extremely narrow streets and alleys of lower Manhattan result in dark, windy thoroughfares that can be turn-offs to potential residents. I believe that one of the best things for a city is to have a large pedestrian residential population (in addition to workers, tourists, etc.), and its very hard to rent/sell apartments in dark units that look out directly at another building.

Anonymous said...

What Anonymous said. In NYC (Manhattan in particular) it helps that the streets are mostly straight. If not, you would basically never get any sun. As it is, you sometimes get unexpected horizon views of New Jersey.

You could have wide thoroughfares with lots of space devoted to walking - big sidewalks in my view make everyone happy.

Eric Fischer said...

San Francisco does have at least one street -- Treasury Place -- where the buildings are so high and the street is so narrow that it is always dark and oppressive. Adding more streets like that would be good to avoid.

But the comfortable central Philadelphia streets are about 50 feet between property lines. The French Quarter in New Orleans has about 35 feet. Central Boston streets are 25 to 50 feet. Most San Francisco streets north of Market are also around 50 feet wide.

I wish we had some places like this in Oakland. Even in Old Oakland and the Lakeside district, the streets are 75 feet. The only Oakland street that ever jumped out at me as being comfortably narrow is the one 25-foot-wide block of Fairview. We need more like it.

Anonymous said...

I think the "sense of place" has less to do with it than simple demand. Those tall buildings and narrow streets have two effects: first, tall buildings that are actually occupied means high demand for access; second, narrow streets mean that the only practical ways to get that access are on foot and maybe bicycle. What's more, with tall buildings and proper zoning you make it so that there isn't a lot of need for the long distance travel that would require driving because most of the places people need/want to go to are local.

Anonymous said...

Great insights. The side streets in Berkeley's neighborhoods tend to be walkable. However, Berkeley's low-rise policy in the downtown contributes to the beastly effect of sections of Shattuck and University, even those sections with tree-lined medians.

Have you read Allan Jacobs's "Great Streets"? Another good read is David Harvey's "Paris, Capital of Modernity."

On the comments regarding narrow streets lined with very tall buildings: solar access is important (see Bosselman, P. and Craik, K.H., 1987. Perceptual Simulations in Environments. In: Bechtel, R.B., Morans, R.W. and Michelson, W., Editors, 1987. Methods in Environmental and Behavioral Research).

Crimson said...

I almost included the following quote in my original post, regarding the issue of very tall buildings on very narrow streets:

"In high-density downtown situations with skyscrapers flanking a narrow thoroughfare, there is legitimate concern that the violation of this ratio in the opposite direction can result in a dark and unpleasant street space. This problem is best mitigated by requiring buildings to step back from an ideally sized sidewalk-hugging base to a narrower tower above, as was required by the original sunlight code of Manhattan."

I understand why the tower-and-base model exists, but my opinion is that Oakland is not in very much danger of having cold, dark streets from skyscrapers. Our buildings aren't even close to the size of Manhattan.

Btw, thanks for the comments and reading suggestions.

Unknown said...

Wow! Great Blog, I love this city and you just took me on the way back machine. In that picture with the caption some streets off of Broadway have more character than Broadway itself there sits Mechanics Auutomotive, I worked there like in what 1980 for few months. Olveg Ivanoff and his Father Igor owned it for a while. And the drummer for the band blondie actualy lived in hat loft upstairs. TOo weird!

Alex From Berkeley said...

This is really interesting! I was searching google trying to figure out more information about one way streets but also specifically the way streets are set up. I wanted to know why 8th street goes one way while 7th goes the other way surely. What was the logic behind the configuration. But reading your article has got me thinking about other aspects of streets. It's very fascinating to look at the streets in cities like Oakland and Berkeley and San Francisco compared to streets in cities like walnut creek or Orinda. Those three cities were designed for high density which is why public transportation works so well in them because they weren't designed for urban Sprawl they were designed for high density liveable streets. I especially like college avenue in Berkeley it feels very dense and cozy thanks to its setup unfortunately college ave is plagued with horrible congestion. I'd say the idea that the car is the answer to all is really what screwed college avenue. Car traffic in general would likely encourage urban sprawl. Also I really never realized how screwed up grand avenue is. It's way to big! I also like San Pablo avenue's Berkeley portion but north and south of that section it seems to feel too big and open there's less density in general. Anyways great article!:)