Great streets make great places. Lousy streets result in clogged traffic and lower property values. While street design feels like a technical matter for planners and city officials, it's a topic that touches each of us quite literally every time we leave our homes. From the morning commute, getting the kids get to and from school or simply going out to dinner, whether you drive, walk or even bike, you engage with street design daily.
So, what makes a street successful and how can understanding street design improve your daily life? Victor Dover and John Massengale's new book Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns illustrates how good street design can unlock economic value, increase happiness, improve health and reknit neighborhoods.
I recently talked with Victor Dover, principal of the Miami town planning firm, Dover, Kohl & Partners, about street design in Miami, where we are now and where we are headed in the future.
Cusato: Why does street design matter to someone who is not in the planning industry?
Dover: Streets are the spaces where we live our lives, when we're not inside buildings, and they define the image and economic performance of our communities. Business people know that competitive cities have streets where people want to be. Since we constantly interact with streets, well-designed streets are the hallmark of towns that are healthy, productive and fun.
Cusato: What makes a great street? Why do some streets feel better than others?
Dover: Walkability is the foundation. Good streets are always well-shaped by the buildings and trees that frame the scene, they have architecture or street trees to make them comfortable and orderly, they are connected to the surrounding town, and they are safe. Great streets have that extra charm that makes them memorable and beautiful, which comes from getting the proportions and geometry just right.
Cusato: How does this translate into our everyday lives?
Dover: Say you're at your desk and it's time for lunch. When the street design is right, once in a while or quite often, you choose to walk down the sidewalk or ride a bike instead of driving. That has huge implications -- suddenly you're burning calories instead of gas, you might bump into your neighbors, you might support a local business, you aren't searching for a parking spot. Your stress level drops, your enjoyment of life rises.
Cusato: Do you have statistics that show the economic benefits of walkable streets?
Dover: Yes. There are numerous recent studies that have reached the conclusion that walkable, bikable, mixed-use places outperform the pedestrian-hostile sprawl. To me, the most startling one shows how, on a per-acre basis, a beloved old classic main street location can earn lots more property tax revenue -- hundreds of times more, sometimes -- than a big-box store in a parking lot out on the edge of town. Well, that revenue is how your city government makes things go, like schools and parks and fire departments. So the decision about how to build the street scene affects all our wallets, for good or ill.
Cusato: Where would a community start in transforming sprawling congested streets into pedestrian friendly places?
Dover: The first thing is to decide where you want to create or restore genuine walkable neighborhoods. In those places, the rules have to be different from out in the auto-oriented sprawl. A better rulebook might let the developers creatively blend a walkable mix of activities, it might require the architect to design buildings with a nice relationship to the street, and it will let the transportation engineer line the sidewalk with shade trees or slow down the traffic in the intersections to a safe speed. All of those moves are typically prohibited according to the zoning and technical manuals of sprawl.
Cusato: Miami is famous for streets like Lincoln Road and Miracle Mile, what were the drivers that allowed these places to develop and thrive over time?
Dover: The layout on the streets on the land came first, decades ago. The alignment of streets in a master plan is hugely important, because changing it later is really hard, but in both of those cases, they got it right. They built great addresses, not just traffic facilities. Then came the street-oriented buildings, with storefronts and balconies facing the sidewalks. No blank walls, no parking lots in front. From there the stage was set for continuous improvement.
Cusato: Miami is also famous for congestion and traffic jams; is there any hope for a street like US1?
Dover: Don't give up on US1, but don't expect the congestion to go away. It will probably be congested until the end of time. So what? Wide busy streets -- wider, busier ones even -- are found in lots of great world cities like Paris and Barcelona. Why can't US1 become a real grand boulevard, a success on its own terms?
Cusato: Brickell is exploding with development, yet, while the street is getting more retail, many of the existing buildings are isolated and pushed back away from the streets, almost like vertical suburbs. What can be done to improve Brickell Avenue?
Dover: Cities are always changing, always combinations of old things and new ones. It doesn't all change at once. I'm optimistic about Brickell Avenue. Today the residents of some of those older island-like towers can come out to the avenue and take a short walk to a sidewalk café or enjoy a bustling sidewalk scene. That wasn't the case twenty years ago, and it's just going to get better. But meanwhile, I think the DOT should stop thinking of Brickell Avenue itself as a fast highway, and bring the design in line with a proper city street. Slowing Brickell down by design could make it safer, more pleasant, and more welcoming to cyclists and pedestrians.
Cusato: What can individuals who are not in the planning field or city government do to support better street design in their communities?
Dover: Raise your voice. Some starter things include demanding street trees, promoting cycling and preserving historic buildings. Tell your elected leaders, and any newcomer candidates who challenge incumbents, that you want those things in your town. Better streets invariably follow.