Tag Archives: sustainability

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 Solar Panels

Baltimore, along with Boston and Philadelphia, boasts some of the finest small streets in the United States. The neighborhoods of Fells Point, Federal Hill, Butchers Hill, Hollins Market, Old Goucher (and more) have preserved many charming blocks of small houses on these peaceful streets. The small streets and houses remain in spite of modern zoning codes, which have contributed to the destruction of small streets in many other American cities.

Baltimore is currently undergoing its first major rewrite of the city zoning code in 40 years, and it wants to incorporate environmental sustainability directly into the code. One way the zoning code can advance these aims is to establish clear regulations for owners of homes and businesses to install solar panels on their roofs.

The first draft of the Baltimore Zoning Code caught our attention because it actually proposed extra restrictions on small streets. Homeowners with flat roofs on main streets could place their solar panels 8 feet from the front of the building, but homeowners on small streets had to place their solar panels 10 feet from the front of the building.

If the problem is the aesthetics of solar panels, then the provision makes little sense. When you walk down a small street, the narrowness of the street limits your line of sight and you actually see less of the roofs than you would on a wide street.

Hunter Street

2300 block Hunter Street, Baltimore. Image credit: Google Maps

Thankfully the drafters of the Baltimore Zoning Code realized their mistake and now the proposed rule in the second draft is that solar panels can be 6 feet from the front of flat-roofed buildings on streets both narrow and wide.

Small streets are actually the perfect places to generate renewable energy while preserving architectural beauty. We believe that it may be possible to allow residents of small streets to use even more space on their roofs to harness the power of the sun without making an impact on the beauty and character of Baltimore’s historic neighborhoods.