What Are Small Streets?

Jessup Street

Jessup Street, Philadelphia. Image credit: Matt O’Hara

Small streets have been around for thousands of years. For centuries they were part of the dominant pattern of development by humans in both large cities and small towns. The industrial revolution, modern centralized town planning, and the personal automobile contributed to the decline of the small street in North America.

Small streets are most simply defined as streets less than 30 feet wide measured from building to building.

Churchill Street

Churchill Street, Baltimore. Image credit: Google Maps

Often small streets include curbs and sidewalks to separate automobiles and pedestrians, but the best and most charming small streets are shared spaces with no curbs. Small streets are rarely provide on-street parking and are typically designed so that drivers are conscious that they do not own the space. They are one-way streets for automobiles, with few exceptions, but always two-way streets for pedestrians.


Imai-Cho, Nara, Japan. Image credit: Molly Des Jardins

Throughout much of the world, small streets exist in organic patterns, intersecting with other small streets as well as wider streets. Boston’s North End neighborhood provides one example for this pattern in the United States. In Baltimore and other industrial cities in the United States, small streets run parallel to wider streets. On some blocks in Baltimore, the wide street and small street share a service alley that keeps utility poles and garbage pickup out of sight. Most small streets are lined with rowhouses but can also host single-family houses, as is common in Japan.