urbanite take

A Chicagoan opines on land use, transportation and the walkable city

D&L 19 – Narrow streets and visual order

with 5 comments

Chapter 19. Visual order: its limitations and possibilities

I’ve obviously unfortunately fallen behind on Death and Life for quite some time, due in large part to my time away. While I’m now caught up on reading with the book club and have certainly enjoyed the discussion, I’ll just jump back in with this very quick post.

Given my time away in London, I was intrigued when Jacobs mentioned “European visitors” and their remarks “that the ugliness of our [American] cities is owing to our gridiron street systems.” She goes on to say the grid system is responsible for these endless vistas that break any sense of enclosure and visual coherence, suggesting that we can add additional streets or invoke topographical barriers and landmarks, natural or not, to create a sense of visual separation.

As I live in a metropolis that is simultaneously one of the most relentlessly gridded in the US and one of the flattest — when I worked out in Hoffman Estates, on a clear day I could see the Willis Tower, which was thirty-five miles away — I of course had to think about what this meant here. It is true that some of the streets, such as Clark St up in Andersonville/Edgewater, for example, that meander gently out of the grid are more interesting “on the ground.” And I certainly miss Los Angeles’ dramatic mountainous backdrop. But, alas, you can’t go adding new streets or certainly new mountains any time soon.

It seems to me that another way to introduce this sort of visual diversity is to have narrower streets; as the buildings cluster together closer and the horizon doesn’t seem as far away, reducing that negative “endless” feeling. Plus, a narrower street results in both sides of the street “cooperating” together more. Instead of feeling as if the buildings on one side are totally unrelated to the buildings on the other, they work together to form a coherent visual whole. If perhaps you can’t narrow a street — after all, some of our most beloved streets are grand boulevards à la Michigan Avenue — I think you either need to add some visual element to the middle like planters or medians, or ensure that the buildings on either side are tall to help overcome that separation.

This always strikes me when I walk down the significantly wider Ashland or Western compared to Damen down here in Wicker Park/Bucktown. There are many differences, particularly in commercial density, between the two streets, but it always seems to me that Damen has a stronger sense of visual cohesion precisely because it’s not as staggeringly wide as the other two thoroughfares.

Written by Andrew ACG

April 6, 2012 at 8:00 am

5 Responses

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  1. The spiderweb-like streets of London or Boston are far more difficult to navigate. Chicago with its grid system and Cartesian-style addressing system are much easier to navigate and determine distances. This doesn’t just apply to cars. It makes cycling and walking a heck of a lot easier too. European-style streets may look cooler, but give me a grid system any day.

    • Oh, I definitely agree with you. Navigating in London without smartphone data and without opening a paper map (the latter just me being stubborn) was a challenge, to say the least; and I’ve actually been to Boston about ten times and still don’t have a good grasp of the street network. This is actually why I was musing on the narrow streets, because I was trying to think if there was a way to reconcile these picturesque “street vistas” with a grid system and its clear navigational/spatial advantages, and it seemed to me like suitably narrow streets would be a good compromise.

      Andrew ACG

      April 6, 2012 at 9:13 am

  2. I was thinking of the same issue last week while walking around in DC, and I agree with Andrew. DC has a pretty strict grid system, but it still manages (occasionally) to reconcile rationality with visual coherence.

    A way of doing this is trees. There’s huge difference in terms of “feel” between U street, for example, and 16th street. Both have relatively small buildings (oh hai height restrictions) but looking down U Street makes one slightly uneasy precisely because of the lack of “enclosure” Jacobs mentions. The sidewalks are bare. 16th street, on the other hand, creates enclosure through its big trees, which, especially when it’s not winter, create a sense of proportion and hide the vanishing point of the street.


    April 6, 2012 at 1:28 pm

  3. Welcome back, Andrew! 🙂

    Heather Ann Kaldeway (Centre for City Ecology, City Builder Book Club)

    April 7, 2012 at 10:41 am

  4. […] City Guy (Chicago, USA) rejoins us with thoughts on narrow streets and visual order (Chapter […]

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