Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns.

By Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard, Ph.D.(Arch.), Director, IMCL

This book is exactly what we need at this time – a guide for how to design streets that are human scale, hospitable to people, and designed to enhance the public realm. It is sure to become an instant classic.

In the 1950s, city planning and transportation planning became specialized fields, whose experts no longer talked to each other, or to architects, let alone to ordinary citizens, the street users. As a result, cities became fragmented, with architects designing stand-alone buildings on lots defined by an abstract plan of streets (grid, cul-de-sac, etc.) designed to move motorized vehicles. The efforts of the Making Cities Livable movement since the 1980s has been to replace that fragmented approach by refocusing attention on how to design cities to enhance quality of life, and by insisting on a jargon-free, multi-disciplinary dialogue.

It is with great joy, therefore, that I read this book, Street Design, by two people who clearly love beautiful, hospitable streets and who understand that great streets are those that not only facilitate active mobility, but that attract people to participate in the public realm.

Victor Dover and John Massengale posed the key questions:  “How do we make our streets and cities places where people want to get out of their cars and walk?” and “How do we make our cities and towns great places where people want to be?” The answers, they knew, would lead us to create more livable towns and cities. The answers are all around us, if we search them out, and open our eyes. “History and experience have shown us how to make great places and great streets. All that remains is to do it.”

The transportation planner alone cannot make North American streets successful simply by widening sidewalks, and including bike lanes and public transit, and yet this is exactly what is happening today. What is required is the vision of an urban designer who is first and foremost a human being – schooled by intense observation and analysis of hospitable streets that do work. The authors understand that the arrangement of sidewalks, bike lanes, transit routes, and automobiles will only be successful when they are framed by compact, human-scale buildings that, especially in the city center, also form a mixed-use, contiguous urban fabric that rises from the edge of the pedestrian areas.

This book is rooted in a profound affection for cities, and for streets that offer citizens high quality of life. It has grown out of a deep observation of city streets from around the world, a careful study of what makes them beautiful and successful, and an analysis of their characteristics, their scale and form, and how they arrange areas for pedestrians, bikes, public transit, and cars.

Dover and Massengale propose a radically new classification system for city streets. The transportation planner’s classification system (arterial, collector, and local roads) they argue, is useful only in planning for motorized vehicles. Even the concept of complete streets, while an important first step and valuable for ensuring that transportation planners remember to safely include bikes and pedestrians, does nothing to ensure the street will be a place people want to be – i.e., a successful street. Success is achieved through a far more complex arrangement for enhancing the pedestrian experience, which involves slowing traffic, trees, quality of paving, and, above all, the architectural frame. For it is the scale and detail of the architecture, the building uses, and the façade openings that provide reasons for people to go there, and a residential population with eyes on the street.

The authors propose a more descriptive typology with roots in the common language and in traditional urbanism. Boulevard, avenue, promenade, main street, downtown street, neighborhood street, and pedestrian passage summon up a vision of a street that – while traffic may exist – is hospitable to humans. The authors carefully examine each of these different street typologies. With photographs, cross sections, plans, and analytical diagrams, they explain the elements that make each type successful and beautiful.

This is an eminently practical book. One section demonstrates how existing streets in North American cities can be retrofitted, drawing on lessons learned from historic streets. In another section, successful examples of new streets are presented and explained. All of these ideas can be achieved in cities across North America. The components – improving the pedestrian realm, considering bike lanes and public transit, greening streets, street connectivity, and mixed-use urban fabric – are familiar to everyone concerned with cities. It is simply a matter of bringing them all together in a way that enhances the public realm.

This book is readable, entertaining, … and wise. It will be immensely valuable for elected city officials, for all those involved in shaping and planning the built environment, and for those who simply love cities and want to understand them better. It should be required reading for all students of urban design, transportation planning, city planning, and architecture.

As Lewis Mumford said, the task of the city is “to unite the scattered fragments of the human personality, turning artificially dismembered [human beings] – bureaucrats, specialists, ‘experts,’ depersonalized agents – into complete human beings, repairing the damage that has been done by vocational separation, by social segregation, by the over cultivation of a favored function, … by the absence of organic partnerships and ideal purposes.” This book provides us all – specialists and non-professionals alike – with a common language and shared vision for making great streets and great cities, and straightforward guidelines for how to achieve this goal.

When, with the help of this book, all our cities have streets that foster “the human dialogue, the drama, the living circle of mates and associates, the society of friends”, we will be ready for the book that I hope Victor Dover and John Massengale are now beginning to plan – a book on Pedestrian Streets and City Squares.

By Victor Dover and John Massengale, Street Design. (2014). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley