Charleston’s Small Streets, Part I

Recently, my partner and I took a trip down to the Carolinas. Naturally, we had to visit Historic Charleston while in the area.

There’s an idea out there that Southerners won’t walk around, especially in the 100 degree heat of summer. A day in Charleston proves that plainly false. In most places in the South, the problem is clearly a lack of appealing places to walk and destinations that can be reached by foot. That’s clearly not an issue in Downtown Charleston.

Walking around, we discovered a number of beautiful small streets. The first I’d like to share is Tradd Street, a residential street around 28 feet wide.

The best lesson this street has to teach is that it’s not necessary to put a yard in front of every house in order to have a green street.

Tradd Street

Check out that tree canopy! Nearly stretching the whole width of the street, these trees form the “ceiling” of this outdoor room. Their shade provides much-needed relief to people walking on hot summer days. And yet all the space they consume on the ground is around six square feet.

Tradd Street

You need not live in a tiny house to live on a small street. This house, three bays wide and two stories tall, is approximately 2500 square feet, which is larger than the size of an average house built today in the United States. Its window boxes and balcony soften the edge of the street, making for a more pleasant walk.

Tradd Street

More balconies and planters, and a different view of the tree canopy. The parked cars make for a tight squeeze on one sidewalk, but otherwise they don’t detract significantly from the ambiance of the street.

Tradd Street

It’s clear that the residents of this street care for the place they live. In neighborhoods like this one, there’s a universal ethic that every household should make a contribution to the public realm.

Tradd Street

What a treasure! Again, you don’t need yards and grass to enjoy a green street. And your experience of this natural beauty isn’t limited to looking at it. These are flowers and plants you can touch and smell. Apparently I’m not the only one who admires this house, either. Even the Google Street View camera caught this woman red-handed!


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Historic houses and historic streets like these deserve our love. With a few gestures of our affection, a bright color of paint here and some flowers there, the architecture and urban design reciprocates by continuing to offer us beautiful places to enjoy for generations.

Tradd Street

Let Me Introduce You to My Small Street

Exciting news! Just a couple of weeks ago, my partner and I moved to a small street in Baltimore. Now that we’re pretty well settled, I thought you might like to take a look at our lovely little street.

Our street is located 1 1/4 miles north of Baltimore’s Washington Monument and less than 2 miles north of the center of Downtown. It’s a part of the Old Goucher College Historic District, which is made up of former college buildings and rowhouses dating mostly from the late 19th century.

Small streets in Baltimore are often called “alley streets” because they run through blocks, parallel to the main streets and behind the larger houses. The following map provides some context. Instead of using the streets’ real names, we’ll refer to them by their color on the map.

Context

We live on the Purple Street, in the middle of the map. You can see that our block is bounded by the Blue, Yellow, Green, and Red Streets. Before we go to the small street, let’s visit each of the surrounding streets.

Blue

Blue Street is around 55 feet wide (building to building). This one-way, two lane street carries a substantial amount of car commuter traffic. Parallel parking on both sides makes it better for walking. In 1898, a chemist and entrepreneur living in one of the marble-front rowhouses on the right purchased all of the lots on the west side of my block and had brick rowhouses constructed upon them.

Yellow

Yellow Street is around 60 feet wide. Except for a warehouse structure, the buildings on both sides of the block have long since been demolished to become parking lots. Without them, the street has no “frame”, making it feel excessively wide.

Green

Green Street is around 55 feet wide. With brick rowhouses on both sides, a beautiful tree canopy and relatively little car traffic, it’s a pleasant place to walk. Recently, many of the stop-signed intersections were replaced with mini-roundabouts.  It’s now a designated bicycle boulevard.

Red

Red Street is around 60 feet wide. Diagonal parking spaces were recently striped here, but the one-way street still feels very wide. There is a park on one side and a community garden on the other.

These four streets frame our small street. Built with 40 feet between curbs, adequate sidewalks and shade trees, and lined with three story rowhouses, they represent the standard for urban living in the 19th century United States. They’re fine places to live and do business, but they’re constructed at the scale of the horse and carriage rather than the pedestrian.

Purple

This is our small street. Like the colors of the houses? So do we! The street is 26 1/2 feet wide (building-to-building). The 15 1/2 feet between the curbs is shared among people, bicycles, and cars.

Parking is not legal here, but the rule is not strictly enforced. There is enough space for two vehicles to pass each other. It’s both a blessing and a curse because when no cars are parked here drivers go quite fast, but when at least one car is parked here drivers proceed very slowly. If the roadway was narrowed 5 or 6 feet, then no cars would risk parking here and through-traffic would move slowly.

Our street has “sidewalks”, but they are only 5 1/2 feet wide and half of that width is taken up by the stoops. Both residents and non-residents walking down the street ignore the sidewalks and use the space between curbs. It’s wonderful to walk here because you can experience the street as a whole room rather than “hug the baseboards” as you would on most city streets.

Purple

The street has a wonderful rhythm about it. Each rowhouse is 12 feet wide and around 30 feet deep. The houses are an ideal size for the small families, couples, groups of unrelated housemates, and single people who live here.

Purple

It’s much easier and far less costly to dress up the front of your house here than it would be in the suburbs—or even on a wider street elsewhere in the city. Our house has one potted tree and three potted flowers. Just $25, $50, or $100 adds beauty and a personal touch that shows some love to both the street and its passers-by.

Garden

Instead of dividing our neighborhood’s space into large private yards, the neighborhood shares a sunny community garden and a spacious park. We grow fruits and vegetables in the garden, which is at the end of our block. The park is an excellent place to play a game of soccer, have a picnic, or read a book. There’s a playground for the kids, too.

Alley

Recycling bins and trash cans never litter our sidewalks. Everyone in the neighborhood, including our small street, has a back alley for pickup of these items. Maybe you noticed earlier, but our small street is free of power lines. These are also located on the alley.

Purple at Red

I hope you’ve enjoyed the tour! This is just one example to show that small streets are not only for Europeans, but Americans too.

Let’s build small streets in cities and towns across this country.

Let’s Sample Life Among the Small Streets and Squares

The Old City of Copenhagen is my favorite place in the whole world. There’s something about the way the small streets, colorful buildings, and great public spaces work together that’s unlike any other place I’ve visited. How about we take a little trip there? Google Maps is no substitute for the real thing, but it can give us a taste.

Here’s a pretty normal street in the Old City. It’s about 30 feet wide. Cars are allowed here. In typical Danish fashion, there are a bunch of bikes parked on the corner.


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Let’s take a right at the record store. We’re on a narrower street now—less than 25 feet wide. See how the streetlights hang from the buildings over the middle of the street? That way, fewer poles need to be stuck in the street. Pretty cool, huh? I know the way the street curves in the distance makes you want to go explore, but stick with me. Let’s turn left at that yellow building.


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See that little blue sign with the parent and child? It says that this is a shared street. Driving is allowed, but mopeds and motorcycles are forbidden. The street is paved with Belgian block now, which is a hint to drivers that they need to share the whole space. The restaurant on the corner is named Eros, after the Greek god of love. This sure would be a great place to spend time with someone you love. Let’s stroll down this street over to those trees.


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Look where we’ve arrived! Our small street has opened up into a square. Look to our right at all of the people sitting outside, enjoying a meal and watching the people walk by. That’s some serious cafe seating—5 tables deep! It’s almost as if someone was expecting us. On the left there are even more café tables. That fountain ahead of us sure looks fun. And a stage is being set up for a concert! The delivery trucks don’t have a problem getting here. They move slowly and don’t bother anyone too much. The cars and trucks are here to serve the people who enjoy this space. This square is spacious at 1/2 acre, but there are people in the suburbs whose yards are larger than this space. How about we walk over to that big tree in the middle of the square.


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What a tree! And it’s surrounded with benches—how thoughtful. Everyone likes to sit under a big tree. What do you want to look at? The cafés, the shops? The stage, the fountain? The pastel-colored buildings? I’ll leave you here. Stay a while and enjoy!


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