Tag Archives: community greening

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.

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.

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.

Seattle

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.

Seattle

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.

Seattle

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.

Seattle

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.

Transformation on a West Baltimore Small Street

We’re always scanning the web looking for real signs of positive change in Baltimore’s small streets, and we’re always excited to find something new. The latest finds come from Boyd Street in the Hollins Market neighborhood.

First, a community group called Sowebo Gardeners has taken advantage of the awesome Adopt-A-Lot program run by the Baltimore City government and turned a series of vacant lots into a beautiful community garden of about 1/5 acre. Naturally, they call it the Boyd Alley Community Garden.

Boyd Alley Garden

Community gardens are great in general, but we believe that they can work especially well on small streets because they emulate the traditional urban development pattern seen in the old cities of Europe, where very narrow streets open up to small squares. A garden provides small street residents a focal point and a gathering place for their community. It’s also a vehicle for neighborhood change.

Second, one of Boyd Street’s houses has undergone one of the most remarkable transformations we have ever seen. Witness the before and after. The before photo is taken from Google Street View, and the second from an off market real estate listing where you can find more photos.

1033 Boyd Street

Now that’s inspiring! Just imagine a whole block of beautiful rowhouses like this one.