Members Speak: Great Urban Streets

Great Urban Streets

By Scott C. Scarfone, ASLA, PLA, AIA Maryland Allied Member
Oasis Design Group │Baltimore, MD

Great streets or signature streets are thriving places that encapsulate the best that urbanity has to offer. They are the stage where live urban theater—people living, working, and socializing—happens. Within the heart of an urban district, they can function simultaneously as a retail entity and residential zone, office core, and/or tourist mecca. Signature streets are economically viable, socially desirable, and aesthetically pleasant.

Attributes of Signature Streets
Signature streets are not just about the functionality of engineering or strictly moving people or cars from point A to point B. Signature streets are symbolic, social, and ceremonial—they establish an image or bring about a sense of place for a city or town. Some attributes of great streets are “accessibility, bringing people together, publicness, livability, safety, comfort, participation, and responsibility,” according to Allan Jacob in his book Great Streets. All of these elements can be accommodated or supported through a street’s physical design. John William Reps states in his book Cities of the American West: A History of Frontier Urban Planning that signature streets are “markedly superior in character or quality.” 

Requirements of Signature Streets
The physical interplay that pedestrians have with the elements of a street plays a significant role in determining the street’s greatness. Specific elements within the streetscape may vary and the particular design of the aesthetic is subjective and should change character from place to place and from street to street. To accomplish this, architects, landscape architects, planners, and designers should support safety, enhance the pedestrian experience, ensure visual and functional continuity, encourage social activities, promote retail activities, establish green infrastructure and public gardens, provide a welcoming tourist environment, establish a unique identity, and make it a great street to drive.

Contributing Qualities
All signature streets have a setting within the greater urban environment that makes them unique. Within that macro setting there are microelements designed at a finer scale that establish character. These primary considerations not only make streetscapes attractive and comfortable places for pedestrians but establish the character that makes them unique. The following elements, used in various ways, contribute to establishing the sense of place. 

  • Trees
    One of the most important streetscape features is trees. Their placement and consideration for their health are paramount. Trees clean the air, provide a separation between the vehicular and pedestrian zones, provide an overhead canopy, soften tall architectural elements, create scale for pedestrians, cool hot urban environments, and can establish a strong image of a street. 
  • Architecture 
    Building architecture forms the structure of the street. Continuity at the ground level develops a pleasant pedestrian streetscape experience. Some elements that reinforce this are materials that are continuous yet allow for variation, the relationship between building spacing and facade openings, and the organization of the facade between the street level and upper stories. 
  • Special Places
    Open spaces are the hub for social interaction, gatherings, and special events. From an urban planning perspective, they are simply places where the urban fabric is allowed to “breathe.” They provide opportunities for planners and designers to introduce memorable moments along a street. The success of such spaces is driven by location and should be generally near retails areas, along pedestrian lines, or intersections. 
  • Accessibility
    Pedestrian activity is what enlivens a street. Pedestrian routes must be well-defined; well lit; and avoid barriers such as walls, curbs, objects, and roadways. Pedestrians must, as it follows, feel safe traversing these routes. Vehicular access and parking must be convenient as should be the routes from those dedicated areas. 
  • Lighting
    For obvious reasons, lighting is an important element in establishing a safe and secure environment. Providing uniform illumination levels with a consistent quality light type can increase the quality of the environment. But lighting, with the myriad of fixture options, can also help to establish a design theme. Whether ground level, up light, down light, spot, or pedestrian style fixtures, lighting can set a mood and instill a desired atmosphere. 
  • Details
    Detail design elements make a place unique. People react strongly to them and they are often the things that people remember and help to formulate a street’s sense of character. The best streets often have a theme, which reinforces what the places are about.

Signature streets do not happen by accident; they evolve based on sound planning and design principles. Many factors attribute to their success. Positive economic and social forces of urbanity, which change over time, along with a street’s well-designed physical environment all increase the probability that the street can become a signature street. When striving to create or re-establish signature streets, planners and designers must remember that streets are not just linear projects or three-dimensional renderings but are evolving, vibrant places that set the stage for urban life to play out.

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