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What Makes a Great Street?

A classic work reminds us that placemaking is more art than science.

By the late 20th century, much of the landscape of urban America had retreated from the goal of placemaking. Crime, suburbanization, and motor vehicles all worked to convince people that such an object was no longer desirable; that we had (in America, at least) moved beyond the street; that perhaps it was a relic of the old world, literally or figuratively. Allan Jacobs’ classic study of urban aesthetics, Great Streets, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, continues to represent an important and persuasive counterpoint to this story.

Great Streets, Allan B. Jacobs, MIT Press, 331 pages

Building on the work of Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, and other urban writers of the post-war period, Jacobs offered a fresh perspective about what was possible, and the value that it could add to our lives—both as individuals, and as participants in a broader culture. For American readers, at least, it also subtly underscored the cultural continuity that existed between the urbanism of Western Europe and that of North America—and of how the historical links of that tradition were in danger of being lost. A quarter-century later, American cities still face many challenges. But their standing overall has greatly improved since 1993. The willingness of cities to re-engage with the elemental forms of traditional urbanism has played a vital role in their improved fortunes.

At its best, the urban environment has an intrinsic advantage over atomized, cookie-cutter developments. Real neighborhoods are simply interesting: they reflect the lives of the people who live in them today; and they are tangible artifacts of those who came before. But neglect makes cities haunting and, sometimes, dangerous: a healthy urbanism requires constant work. And Great Streets reminds us that this endeavor is more than a technical or bureaucratic exercise—indeed, placemaking is more art than science.

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It is fitting that a spirit of art runs through Great Streets. An artist’s approach to urbanism is the essence of the book. Its very arrangement is artful: divided into four major sections, each part is distinct from the others in its length and conceptual focus. Yet the reader immediately senses that this is not a formulaic work; nor is there a formula implicit in the urban qualities its author identifies. Instead, an intrinsic mystery draws you in, and Jacobs uses comparison and surprise to spotlight a wide array of characteristics. Throughout the work, he stubbornly defies the temptation to simplify what is complicated. With close analysis of form and context, he highlights the innate variety of factors that can contribute to a street’s charisma and provides a diversity of examples from cities around the world.

When Jacobs first published Great Streets in the early 1990s, the future of American cities stood on shaky ground. True, some Americans had begun to forego the starched lawns of suburbia for the weathered brick and clapboard of old neighborhoods. But even in exceptional places where the virtues of old urbanism were valued, blight was never far. Everywhere, middle-class flight and the War on Drugs had turned entire subsections of American cities into violent ganglands. In such an atmosphere, a narrow focus on the elemental forms of traditional urbanism was, understandably, tangential; and struggling cities continued to seek salvation by incorporating discordant suburban concepts, like parking lots and shopping malls, into their aging fabric. In this context, Great Streets was a well-timed contribution. By focusing on the aesthetics and vibrancy of public space, Jacobs reminded readers that urban planning could be a conscious art that makes meaningful, humane places—and thereby attracts positive human activity—through decisive physical forms. To this end, Great Streets illuminates the qualities in different settings that are worth studying, questioning, and understanding.

This article is part of a series on classic works in urbanism.

Town Planning in Practice, Raymond Unwin

The Art of Building Cities, Camillo Sitte (coming soon)

The first section of the book is a collection of case studies of individual streets. With its focus on traditional Western forms, most examples are from Europe and North America. Jacobs begins by examining a residential cul-de-sac in Pittsburgh on which he once lived. He thus dispenses with the notion that fame or busy-ness should be prerequisites, focusing instead on scale, enclosure, and human activity. He looks at 14 additional streets in Europe and North America; a neighborhood in Beijing; and two street ensembles in Europe. His selections include grand boulevards in Paris, Aix-en-Provence, and Barcelona; winding, medieval streets in Rome and Copenhagen; and urban and suburban streets in the United States. Jacobs’ narrative is one of the best aspects of the book: in addition to providing a wealth of information, and a focus on important qualities, it reads at times like the tight, colorful prose of a 20th-century American novel.

The most interesting case study is also the most counterintuitive. Jacobs makes the case that the Grand Canal of Venice and other urban waterways are essentially liquid streets, serving, like paved streets, as thoroughfares, gathering places, architectural showcases, and prospects for vistas. And one might argue that the canals of Venice are more than just technically akin to modern streets: given the role of Venice in the emergence of the modern commercial world, its urban patterns represent a sort of prototype for later cities. But Jacobs’ focus is neither history or economics; it is aesthetics. And while one might observe that its liquid cartway is what distinguishes the Grand Canal most fundamentally from traditional, paved streets, Jacobs cites an absence of sidewalks along much of the canal—and associated absence of street life—as the most salient difference. As a result (and in contrast to many of the smaller waterways of Venice, as he notes), the Grand Canal is essentially a service thoroughfare, with few opportunities for foot traffic, outside a handful of specific locations (e.g., the Rialto, San Marco, etc.). Jacobs sees that this absence of pedestrians— which undoubtedly diminishes an element that is present in many great streets—as a boon to the observant visitor, helping shift one’s focus toward some of the canal’s higher-order, street-like qualities. In one of his more poetic passages, he highlights a sense of spatial enclosure, where saltwater takes the place of paving stones:

The water is calm, mostly a light olive green mixed with cerulean blue. In the early morning it may be a mixture of blues and greens and yellows that can be indistinguishable from the sky, so that one hardly knows where one stops and the other starts. In Venice, in the early morning, an artist might paint the air, permitting shapes of buildings to emerge at times not all that different in color from the air itself, only darker, maybe with some pinks. At these times there is a faint horizontal line in the water, a clue to where the buildings emerge. Generally the buildings are light-colored and richly detailed, as becomes apparent as soon as the sun burns off the morning haze. At first impression, they seem to be of similar if not the same height along the water’s edge.

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Jacobs’ plan drawing of the Grand Canal at the Rialto

The Grand Canal stands out as a unique example, but a more typical case study, also from Italy, is the Via dei Giubbonari in Rome. Beginning at the famous Campo de’ Fiori—an old market square that today doubles as a center of Roman nightlife— the Via dei Giubbonari takes a southeasterly course to the more subdued green space of the Piazza Cairoli. Covering less than a thousand feet, the street is nonetheless characterized by the mystery and irregularity of its medieval form. From wider ends, it narrows and bends over a short course, coaxing pedestrians into its right-of-way and obscuring what lies beyond. Jacobs describes its effects:

Once on Via dei Giubbonari, attracted by one of the funnel-shaped widenings at either end, you want to see where it leads, even if you already know, and you want to experience what is more immediately around you as well. There are many buildings, even more doorways, and almost continuous store windows at the street level. […] Wall thickness and building solidity are made clearly evident by their visible contrast with the glass panes in them. Buildings and other stores as well are deep, and the windows show this. How deep are they? What is in there? There is a bit of inviting mystery; something to be explored. Above, there are more windows, shuttered or open depending on the time of day and where the sun may be.

One cannot read Jacobs’ case studies without being reminded of, and marveling at, the relative permanence of urban street patterns. Because while individual buildings and their diverse uses exist in a sort of eternal flux, the patterns of thoroughfares themselves—once established— tend to remain fixed indefinitely. This is undoubtedly due to the practical nature of streets, and the consensus that exists at any moment among the many who rely on perpetual access. Thus, in very old cities like Rome, we find examples of streets like the Via dei Giubbonari, whose route and shape have survived for many centuries. Some elements date from classical antiquity; others from medieval or early modern times; and still others are of more recent vintage. Not surprisingly, similar tapestries can be found in Istanbul and Jerusalem, and in smaller towns and cities whose histories began in a similarly ancient past.

Jacobs’ plan and section drawings of the Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, Rome

In a subchapter called “Trees Alone,” Jacobs addresses the Viale delle Terme di Caracalla (which follows the historical course of the Via Appia from central Rome past an ancient bath complex), explaining how the city’s iconic umbrella pines help define space:

Their height and linearity can be seen from a distance. In a city full of stone landmarks, these rows of pines are yet another way to understand the city and one’s location in it. Below, closer to the ground, there is another ceiling made of dark, spreading Quercus ilex. Some of their branches meet, other do not, so there is both light and shade, mostly the latter. Against the bright, hot Roman sun and in welcome contrast to the undefined large spaces at the street’s beginning [i.e., the Circo Massimo] … the tree-covered medians attract walkers with a promise of coolness…. During the winter months, when there is less sun, it is pleasant to walk on the side paths. If the design of the Viale della Terme di Caracalla was meant to attract walkers from central Rome … to the Baths of Caracalla another half mile or so distant, then these dark, cool, tree-lined paths are the way to do it.

Returning to the point of historical layering, note how the Viale delle Terme di Caracalla combines the showcasing of a ruined complex from classical antiquity, the creation of the pastoral aesthetic of Romantic landscape architecture, and the functional expedience of modern highway engineering—all while keeping faith with the ancient course of the Appian Way. Amazing.

Ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, Rome, at twilight. Viale delle Terme di Caracalla follows the right-of-way of the ancient Via Appia, beyond the grass, at the far left. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack

The other sections of Great Streets are more spatial than narrative. Describing the definitive residential section of Fifth Avenue in New York City, the author notes the bounding and tone-setting functions of trees, masonry walls, benches, and paving stones; and he notes the distinction between the private spaces that can be glimpsed within apartment buildings and the public nature of adjacent sidewalks and Central Park.

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Another familiar example that Jacobs offers is the curved portion of Regent Street, London, near Piccadilly Circus. Here, he describes a subtly discordant contrast between striking visual design qualities and a street-level environment that caters to vehicular traffic and fails to encourage leisurely walking. The author notes that numerous intersecting side streets, leading off into the quieter blocks of Mayfair and Soho, are much more inviting to pedestrians.

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The third part of Great Streets, “Streets and City Patterns: Settings for Streets and People,”  mostly departs from the narrative approach. Rather than examining individual streets, Jacobs visualizes the neighborhood context of streets, presenting black-and-white ink maps of square-mile samples of cities throughout the world. By examining these simple plans, the reader instantly grasps the impossibility of developing a standard set of quantifiable dimensions for the creation of streets (whether great, or not). The variety of building patterns between cities—even among culturally similar cities—is simply too profound. That the dimensions of post-war American suburbs bear little resemblance to those of European cities may not be especially remarkable; but that the dimensions of similarly-sized Mediterranean cities are so divergent from one another; or that the differences in street patterns across pre-industrial neighborhoods of the English-speaking world are so pronounced – these things are surprising. Block lengths, street widths, the absence or presence of grids, and the degree of adherence to land contours all prove nearly impossible to compare across locations. This is often true even within a single city.

The historical centers of three major Western cities illustrate the intrinsic variety of traditional urbanism. At equal scales, the variation of street widths, block sizes, patterns, and relations to topography are clear. Maps by Allan B. Jacobs.

Jacobs teaches that the physical form of urbanism—even traditional, Western urbanism at its aesthetic best—is not uniform. Echoing Camillo Sitte, the 19th century Viennese planner, he demonstrates that urban planning is truly an art: a practice whose application is borne of intuition and experience (both individual and cultural), drawing on a set of refined technical skills. And while certain elements may often present as common threads—street walls, for example, and public squares—these have been both successfully and unsuccessfully interpreted in countless ways. For this reason, instead of attempting to devise a unifying formula of urbanism, Jacobs uses the last section of Great Streets to articulate a synthesis, including rules of thumb, from the observations and interpretations that have filled the preceding pages. Examining the threads found in diverse case studies, with an eye to the organizing patterns of broader neighborhoods, Jacobs distills a group of general-but-necessary factors for good urban placemaking, cautioning that “By themselves, as a group, the required qualities will not assure a great street…. a final ingredient [is] … the magic of design.”

Leaving room for magic, then, what are the concrete qualities that great streets require? Jacobs begins with three basic, physical characteristics: (1) a pedestrian realm, (2) considerations of physical comfort, and (3) well-defined space. With respect to the first, a variety of approaches may satisfy: well-defined sidewalks, car-free streets, and even narrow, stone-paved streets—where vehicles are slowed to a human pace—can all make good places to walk. For the second, physical comfort, a time-honored planning tradition (taught at least as far back as Vitruvius) calls for studying hyperlocal factors when laying out new streets: prevailing winds, shadows cast by topography, and the transit of the sun may all be weighed to ensure the most comfortable use of environmental factors in a particular spot. Jacobs endorses this. On the third point, defined space—that is, a sense of placemaking enclosure at the street level—Jacobs turns to the research, and takes a more technical (and precise) approach than usual, arguing space is established when “height to horizontal distance ratios are 1:4 (or less) when the viewer is looking at a 30-degree angle to the street direction.”

It is interesting that there may be such a quantifiable component to placemaking; that we may in fact be predisposed to experience a sense of intimacy within certain measurable, urban dimensions—and a sense of alienation in others. Evidence of measurable, psychological ground rules for good urbanism does pop up from time to time: an experienced teacher’s advice that development ought to be concentrated within 1,500 feet of a town square or a railroad station feels about right—and is consistent with many examples of good urbanism. The Commissioners’ Plan of New York parceled out typical blocks with 60-foot-wide rights-of-way (i.e., cartways and sidewalks), spaced 200 feet apart. These were divided into building parcels with 25 feet of street frontage and 100 feet of parcel depth. For two centuries, this rude formula has shaped the Manhattan grid, and some have blamed the large-lot platting for the mishmash of big, expensive brownstones and even bigger tenements that continues to characterize the old fabric of the city between Houston Street and Washington Heights (where the regularity of the grid begins to break down). So, yes, there are hard numbers that go into placemaking, and these numbers matter. Yet we see in Great Streets how the numbers are just one of the many components that support placemaking; and that most of its aspects are not so easily measured.

Other essential qualities Jacobs cites hew more closely to a dynamic between visuals and imagination. In a literal sense, these elements are superficial; in an aesthetic sense, they are much more—but a casual observer might not be attentive to their effects, even as he or she experiences them. Jacobs cites visual curiosities that “engage the eyes,” like textures in building details that enrich surfaces and play in the shadows cast by changing sunlight. Another factor is transparency, achieved through windows, doors, and passageways that facilitate glimpses—or at least intuitions—of what happens in the private realms beyond. Also, there is complementarity: a sort of harmony, by chance or by design, among roof lines, floor heights, building materials, and other factors shaped by multiple structures. And though we might consider them givens, Jacobs cites good building materials and consistent maintenance to round out the list of essentials. Finally, Jacobs offers a list of non-essential factors, ranging from park benches to lighting design, that may work to invest urban settings with a deeper sense of place.

Ultimately, Jacobs’ work might be summarized as follows: Great streets combine certain identifiable, designable physical qualities to draw out public life; and that this liveliness, fueled by the right context of economics and culture, complements the well-built environment—and completes the process of placemaking on a day-to-day basis. This, one might surmise, is part of what Jacobs means when he talks about magic: the ephemeral dynamic between a good built environment and those who engage with it to create a living place.

Jacobs’ ideas in Great Streets track closely with improvements made toward reinvigorating the urban tradition since its publication. Keeping a valuable tradition alive requires a perpetual process of reframing and retelling; in short, it requires good teachers. The continuing relevance of established practices must be communicated effectively to maintain adherents who will be motivated to transmit their wisdom forward to the next time and place. In the tradition of urbanism as a cultural imprint and a living artistic pursuit, Jacobs is an excellent teacher. Twenty-five years after its publication, his work remains a guidebook for the cities of our own time.

Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, is a consultant on urban-planning projects, and has worked on Hurricane Sandy recovery projects in New York City. He blogs at Legal Towns, and has also written for the Metro New York Transit-Oriented Development Newsletter and the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute’s white papers series. Copyright 2018 Theo Mackey Pollack.

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