One objection I frequently hear from people when I’m arguing the virtues of small streets is that we already have cities, and these cities already have wide streets, so isn’t this whole small streets idea not really applicable? We can’t just tear Chicago down and start over, so why not focus on greenfield development and leave the city be?
With a little creativity, however, small streets design can in principle be woven into the existing fabric of a city like Chicago. The easiest places to start are big plots of land that lack significant existing infrastructure, such as the Midway. Large-scale development on this sort of site is happening right now on the South Side, albeit with design principles more or less completely antithetical to my own. I’m much more optimistic about Ikea’s Strand East project in London, which seems much closer in spirit to small streets urbanism. My hope is that Strand East, which sits on a plot a third the size of the Midway, will prove to be a successful and replicable model of walkable urban development.
Projects like Strand East (or a small streets village on the Midway) are a very good start, but most of our urban areas, almost by definition, are not made up of blank canvas. The best such projects can hope to achieve is to convince enough people that more of the city should look like them. But even with everybody’s support, how might we go about turning a neighborhood like Hyde Park into a small streets paradise?
One major constraint is that we should try to minimize changes to existing buildings, as these are expensive and disruptive to peoples’ lives. Instead, we must make good use of all of the space between buildings.
The first thing to note is that we already have an extensive network of small streets. They’re called alleys. Of course, not every building backs right onto the alley, but the scale of alleys is much closer to the small streets ideal. Any plan to small-streetsify Hyde Park should be able to make good use of alleys as small streets.
Our existing streets, however, are too wide to sensibly keep in their current form. The good news, however, is that they’re so wide that we can reasonably build through them and create streets on both sides! Let’s again take the rather typical example of Blackstone Avenue around 58th Street. The roadway itself is about 35 feet wide, plenty of room for a row of buildings. The width of the green strip and sidewalk on each side is about 15 feet, a good width for a small street.
The problem, though, is that many buildings have large setbacks, often between 20 and 30 feet (and one that’s over 75 feet!). Ideally, we would simply build wider buildings in the middle of the existing street to maintain a 15-foot facade-to-facade distance, but this would require building onto privately owned lots. Filling in backyards facing an alley poses the same problem. And we’d also like to be able to build streets between adjacent buildings, since our current north-south streets have fairly infrequent intersections. While the properties could be taken via eminent domain, this is an expensive, coercive, and extremely disruptive process. It would be better to simply offer to pay people for their front and rear yards; most people would hopefully be willing to sell at the right price (and, remember, this all happens after achieving wide public support for small streets development).
The image below depicts a possible development pattern for Blackstone (on the right) and the alley between Blackstone and Dorchester (on the left). New buildings are drawn in pink.
Maybe this seems unrealistic to you. Maybe it seems ghastly. Maybe it seems wonderful. But it’s not impossible. We can double (at least!) the density of Hyde Park without touching a single existing building. Few people would consent to such a plan today. But one of the primary purposes of this blog is to have a public discussion of what is possible in urban design. A small streets village on the Midway will be affordable, walkable, safe, and beautiful. But we don’t need to stop there.