Monthly Archives: January 2012

Small Streets are More Than the Distance Between Curbs

Small Streets are also about the distance between buildings on either side of the street. Too often urban planners and engineers think that the width of a street is the distance between two curbs. If you’re only concerned about moving vehicles, then sure—the distance between buildings matters little. But if you care about the street as a public space for neighbors to talk and kids to play, then the distance between buildings matters. Most streets in the United States do not define space very well. When you stand in the middle of most streets, you feel like you’re in more of an abyss than an outdoor room. And people don’t like the feeling of being in an abyss.

Last week we looked at Ward’s Island of Toronto, Canada and found that it’s possible to have a small street with single-family detached houses. The paths for pedestrians and bicycles were around eight feet wide, which ensured that speeding traffic was a physical impossibility. The Google Street View images showed us that the island’s residents spend a lot of time outside. We saw tables, chairs and benches all over porches, stoops, and front yards.

While the narrow paths certainly help set the groundwork for a social community, we would like to argue that they are not enough. The short distance from your front door to your neighbor’s across the way—that is the key element of the community’s design.

Let’s take a trip to the American West Coast to look at a street whose roadway is narrow, but whose gulf between neighbors is great. This is 2nd Avenue NW between 117th and 118th Streets in Seattle.


Some 11 years ago, the Seattle Public Utilities experimented with a program called the Street Edge Alternative (SEA) Streets Project. A news article from the time praises the project for its environmental benefits, especially its potential to reduce of stormwater runoff. The street was narrowed to 14 feet and curved to add interest. These are worthy improvements, but this place is still suburbia.


The curvy street definitely adds some interest. I would certainly enjoy walking down it much more than I would the street a couple of blocks over (shown in the next photo), but look at the huge distance between the houses. It’s some 115 feet from your front door to your neighbor’s across the street! This is not an environment conducive to forming community ties.


Back to the revamped street, you don’t see any tables, chairs or benches here. No children’s toys, either. These neighbors even put up a fence between their houses. They don’t want to talk.


The SEA Streets Project does get at least one element of community design right. Neighbors walk to a cluster of mailboxes that serves a few houses on the street. The chances you’ll run into a neighbor aren’t great, but better than zero. In the article, the Seattle Design Commissioner praises the community building perspective of the project. The street they built is functional and the landscaping is beautiful, but the potential for a community to grow here is minimal.

What are the chances that anyone will stop to admire this lovely tree and stay a while? Not great, unfortunately.


As Jan Gehl writes in his book Cities for People, genuine conversation is not possible until people are within 25 feet of each other. Cutting the distance between curbs is not enough to make a street a lively place.

Small Streets and Single-Family Houses Go Together, Too

Not everyone likes rowhouses, and that’s OK with us. Maybe you love living in a single-family detached house, but love small streets. You look around your environment and fear you’re doomed to live your life on a suburban street that’s far too wide. Well, you’re in luck because small streets and detached houses CAN work together!

Toronto Island

The streets of Ward’s Island, one of the Toronto Islands in Canada, really are this narrow—and this beautiful. More than 200 residences are located on the Toronto Islands, but that’s not nearly enough to meet the demand. According to a 2009 article from the Torontoist, the current wait for a house on the Islands is around 35 years.

It’s our best guess that the actual streets on the Islands are around 8 feet wide, and a little Google Maps measuring indicates that it’s around 30 feet between the houses. That fits our definition for a small street.

Toronto Island

Doesn’t life look peaceful here? Look at all the outdoor furniture. You can tell that people who live here spend a lot of time outside. And this house is at an intersection! Think about how your perception of an intersection would change if there weren’t any cars around, and the streets were scaled for people. You wouldn’t run a red light and crash into a car, you’d run into a friend and start a conversation. 

Toronto Island

People always ask about access for emergency vehicles, especially fire trucks. Emergency access is not a problem for small streets. It’s easy to find simple solutions, like using smaller trucks. That’s exactly what the City of Toronto decided to do. The Mini Pumper is 94 inches wide, which works for the small streets, and it meets National Fire Protection Association standards in the USA.

Toronto Island Fire Truck

Because the Islands’ houses are made of wood, residents take precautions, but they haven’t lost a building on one of the fire truck-accessible islands since 1939. Most urban small streets’ rowhouses are constructed of brick, so the fire dangers there are much lower. Urban small streets in the United States are also substantially wider than the streets of the Toronto Islands, so fire response is even less of an issue in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, or other cities.

Our First Official Political Action

We Love Small StreetsWe’re proud to announce that we have taken our first official action to advocate on behalf of small streets. As we’ve mentioned on the blog and website before, Baltimore is in the process of completely rewriting its zoning code for the first time since 1971. Zoning is not the most exciting aspect of urban planning, but when it’s only reviewed in full every 30-40 years, it’s important to pay attention and speak up.

Lou and I reviewed the whole text of the proposed code and picked out 10 sections that affect the viability and vitality of small streets in Baltimore either directly or indirectly. All of our comments address the importance of planning for the pedestrian first.

There are three sections that we believe have a very significant effect on small streets:

  1. Rowhouses must have a lot area of at least 750 square feet and a maximum lot coverage of 80 percent. As we discussed in a previous post, many houses in the Fells Point neighborhood do not meet one or both of these requirements.
  2. Solar panels need to be set back at least six feet from the front façade. We mentioned in a previous post that it may be possible to allow a smaller setback for small streets.
  3. Carriage houses can only be converted to residences if they have at least 750 square feet in area. It’s our position that the minimum size for a safe, healthy, and comfortable dwelling is much less than 750 square feet.

We also commented on sections that reinforce and maintain the automobile’s dominance in Baltimore. Ultimately, small streets cannot fully flourish until we’ve reoriented the city toward the pedestrian.

To read the full letter we sent to the city, follow this link. We look forward to reading a final draft of the code that shows small streets some love!