Small Streets and Student Housing

The Wall Street Journal, in its unapologetically named Mansion section, just published a feature on private luxury developments for college students. While some might view this piece as yet another sign of the higher education apocalypse (not that they’d necessarily be wrong to do so), I’d like to put a more positive spin on this trend. These luxury units, while large by traditional college-student standards, are still quite small compared to real-people standards. College is for many people their first experience living on their own, and the typical college dorm doesn’t make a great first impression for small-space communal living. It’s no surprise, then, that so many people want to move to the big house in the suburbs as soon as they can after graduation. Higher-quality student housing has the potential to nudge consumer preferences towards more efficient living options, and that’s a good thing.

Of course, these developments aren’t without their problems. They tend to be located farther from campus, which discourages walking. Some come bundled with a parking spot, which discourages alternative transportation modes. And despite the profusion of amenities they offer, they are still essentially residential-only developments. But a small streets village on the Midway could provide desirable living for students with none of these downsides.

The University of Chicago is at a critical juncture. It’s been boosting its undergraduate enrollment at the same time as it’s been closing dorms. The Shoreland shut down several years ago and was replaced by the South Campus Residence Hall, just across the Midway. This is a walkability improvement in terms of students getting to class, but a hindrance in terms of access to retail and public transportation. Pierce Tower, my old stomping grounds, is scheduled for demolition at the end of the school year. Despite the opening of the new dorm, the housing situation has been tight, and the demolition of Pierce (which will likely be replaced by another dorm, though not for several years) will make things tighter.

It seems to me that it’s only a matter of time before the luxury student housing development companies smell the blood in the water. My (rather unsurprising, given the theme of this blog) suggestion to the University is to act now and push for small streets development on the Midway. This would provide additional housing (private and/or University-owned) for students and important amenities for the now quite substantial population of students south of the Midway. Perhaps most importantly, it would show the rest of the country a new and better model for (just-)off-campus living. Students getting their first taste of independent life in a cozy small-streets village could spark a shift in consumer sentiment that would reshape our society for the better. And isn’t that what higher education is all about?

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A Symbol

In 1893, the Midway Plaisance played host to the World’s Columbian Exposition, a celebration of 400 years of progress in the New World, a tribute to the city of Chicago’s resurrection after the Great Chicago Fire, and an unveiling of technologies, products, and ideas that would go on to change the world.

The Midway Plaisance, 1893

Yet today, the Midway lies fallow. Ironically, the very spot on which the foundations of 20th century urban design were laid is now an empty (save for a skating rink, a statue, and now some giant lightsabers) strip of grass and pavement in the midst of one of the world’s great cities. If the World’s Columbian Exposition was a symbol of American—and Chicagoan—success, then the Midway today is as powerful a symbol of American—and Chicagoan—failure. It has become a mausoleum for our erstwhile dreams, an old thing to be appreciated rather than experienced.

The Midway Plaisance, Today

But it doesn’t need to be this way. Today’s world faces different challenges from those of 1893. The American dream, in the form that developed in the decades following the World’s Columbian Exposition, is no longer tenable. Our lifestyles, which have become so dependent on fossil fuels, must adapt. And in our quest for innovation, the Midway Plaisance can once again play a starring role.

Midway Village Flag

This flag represents what the Midway Plaisaince could be. It is based off the flag of Chicago, the third star of which represents the World’s Columbian Exposition, one of the four defining historical events in Chicago’s history. In the Chicago flag, the white field and light blue stripes represent the areas and waterways of the city. Here, they represent the Midway Plaisance. Out of the legacy of the World’s Columbian Exposition emanate small streets. By transforming the Midway into a small streets village, we can make it as much of a symbol of success to the 21st century as it was to the 20th. We must let the Midway bloom.

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How Wide the Streets

Somewhere there’s planning
Show me the deets
Somewhere there’s drafting
How wide the streets

—Folk song of unknown origin

I’ve previously discussed street width primarily in the context of the Midway Village project, where the streets are designed for people rather than for vehicles. In such a context, there is essentially no lower bound on street size aside from issues of aesthetics and comfort.

When implementing small streets urban planning on a larger scale, however, vehicles must be taken into account. Even a walkable, transit-rich city needs to be accessible and navigable to delivery vehicles, emergency vehicles, and yes, people who drive cars. Creating a pedestrian paradise and removing all the subsidies we provide to drivers will not completely obviate the need or the desire for automobiles. Cars, after all, are useful things and can provide a large societal benefit once we remove the goggles that make every inch of urban real estate look like a nail to the car’s hammer.

So how do we achieve a harmonious blend of pedestrian dominance and vehicular accessibility? The answer in some sense already exists within the framework of our current cities. In Chicago’s grid, not all streets are created equal. Every half mile in each direction, there is a wide arterial road designed to handle a high volume of two-way traffic. Between these lie smaller, typically one-way streets designed primarily for use at the beginning and end of longer car trips. This is a sensible system, at least in the (totally insane) context of a city designed for automobile use. It just needs to be scaled down.

The smaller streets of modern-day Chicago should be replaced by very narrow streets, in the vein of those I’ve proposed for the Midway Village. These streets should, for the most part, not prohibit vehicle traffic, but should by design render vehicle traffic slow and rare. While delivery and emergency vehicles will need to be able to access these streets as usual, personal automobile use will be curtailed by the absence of parking.

What about the larger arterial streets? They should have one vehicle lane in each direction, with ample (but not oversized) sidewalks on either side, and definitely no on-street parking. Nathan Lewis shows an excellent example of this sort of street in Tokyo. As Lewis argues, there’s no room for individual buildings to have off-street parking, but the market could provide parking structures as needed. These arterial streets could be spaced more closely than Chicago’s giant arterial roads: one per quarter mile would be reasonable. Locating parking structures on such streets would suffice to keep most car owners and car sharers off the really narrow streets.

Bicycle advocates might object at this point. Where are the bike lanes? Bike lanes are an important feature of our city’s current transportation infrastructure, but I think their costs would outweigh the benefits in a small streets urban design. Both the really narrow streets and the arterial streets, while designed specifically for pedestrians and motor vehicles, respectively, would be much more hospitable to cyclists than today’s sidewalks and arterial roads. Dedicated bike lanes would not add much value for cyclists.

The costs of bike lanes, on the other hand, are large. Grid Chicago’s Steven Vance gives us a good look at what goes into street width calculations, at least under the current regulatory regime. Travel lanes take up 10 feet each. Excessive, perhaps, but let’s go with it. So 20 feet for car traffic. With 5-foot sidewalks, this brings us up to 30 feet. Installing 5-foot bike lanes would bring the total width up to 40 feet. This is still quite narrow compared to most of our streets today. But to put it another way, with arterial streets placed every quarter mile, bike lines would take up 1.5% of our urban real estate! We could place bike lanes on only some arterial streets, and perhaps there are places where it would make sense to do so. But overall, bike lanes would not have a significant role to play.

Of course, retrofitting a city like Chicago with a small streets design would require an enormous effort, involving plenty of infill development. This is why I advocate primarily for urban experiments like the Midway Village. But a small streets village shouldn’t be thought of as an isolated novelty. With sufficient political will, the same principles can guide the (re-)development of an entire functional city.

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The City as Laboratory

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has received a lot of negative press coverage recently for his proposed ban on large sodas, but he is now embarking on another crusade, which deserves our praise. He has waived zoning requirements on a Manhattan lot and has called for architects to compete to design liveable apartments sized under 300 square feet. If this project is successful, perhaps it would pave the way for the city to lower (or even drop) its current requirement of a 400-square-foot average for apartment buildings.

This sort of experimentation is something that should be happening much more often in our cities, and people should be paying much more attention to it. Why should there be an uproar when your city limits the size of your soda, but silence when your city limits the size of your home? Our cities suffer from a lack of innovation and a uniformity of poorly thought out regulations. The only way for this to change is for our city leaders to permit, and even encourage, us to try to do things differently. Let’s trumpet Bloomberg’s project and demand that our city leaders treat the city as a laboratory, lest it become a museum.

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Midway Village, Phase 1: Part II

This is the second in a series of posts in which I will describe my vision for the first phase of a small streets village on the Midway, which I originally proposed in my first post. In my previous post, I outlined a possible street layout, which I reproduce below.

Map of Midway Village, Phase 1

How might the buildings in the village be used? An ideal use for most of the space would be a mix of residential and commercial, with retail occupying the ground floors and apartments occupying the upper floors. Such a configuration is fairly typical in many European cities and is already quite well represented here in Hyde Park.

Apartments would ideally be quite a bit smaller than the norm to keep density high and prices low. I mentioned a figure of 250 square feet per person last time. This may seem very low, but this would merely be an average: much smaller (and hence less expensive) accommodation would be ideal for the University’s many students. But even for people who can afford larger apartments, the aesthetic of the village should be most appealing to those who do not necessarily value—or even want—a lot of private space. By creating appealing public spaces designed for people and not vehicles, the need for excessive amounts of private space diminishes. Balconies would be a prominent feature of apartments that would further connect people to the public space.

The ground-floor retail would be much like the retail we already see in Hyde Park: restaurants, cafés, barbershops, bookstores, and so on. Small shops and service providers can only stand to benefit from a situation in which many people are living literally right on top of them and with fewer restrictions on where they can open. In lieu of supermarkets, smaller, more specialized grocers like Hyde Park’s own Open Produce become much more viable in a high-density, walking-oriented community. Indeed, Open Produce co-founder Steven Lucy has been traveling around Europe, visiting groceries and produce stands in Budapest, Skopje, Thessaloniki, and Istanbul. His photographs give a very good idea of how such retail integrates into the fabric of the city.

This is not to say that there would be no place for larger retail establishments. The square, with its proximity to the Metra line, would be an ideal place to locate attractive retail, which would help make it a destination for people from the rest of Chicago. But not everything would be a good fit for a small streets village. A furniture store like Ikea is a bad fit because people tend to want to transport their furniture in their cars. A supermarket is likewise a bad fit, especially with a preponderance of smaller grocers in the village. A clothing store, however, would be an important addition, especially since this is one area in which Hyde Park (and the rest of the South Side) is sorely lacking. (And no, Akira doesn’t really count.) The Japanese clothing giant Uniqlo has set its sights on a big US expansion, but it recently passed up Chicago for the West Coast. Uniqlo offers a broad range of sensible clothing for reasonable prices, and I think it would be popular among the students here. Attracting Uniqlo or something comparable to it would be an important goal for this phase of the project. Another good retail option would be a sporting goods store, especially given the proximity of the Midway Village to the Jackson Park Golf Course. I also have no doubt that the South Side could support more cinemas, theaters, art museums, and the like.

Overall, it’s hard to predict what the right mix of residential and commercial space would be, and such decisions might be best left up to the market. But I think a mix of some purely residential buildings, buildings with ground-floor retail, and larger retail locations in the vein that I described, would be a likely outcome in an environment where automobile use is curtailed and mixed-use buildings are permitted throughout.

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Assorted Links

I haven’t posted as much as I’d like over the past several weeks. (I’ll use the excuse that I have a PhD thesis that I’m supposed to be writing.) I promise more content over the next few weeks, but until then, the following interesting tidbits from the rest of the blogosphere should tide you over.

  • Emily Washington at Market Urbanism is hosting a summer book club, which is currently reading The High Cost of Free Parking. I’ve written about the book before, and its very persuasive arguments have become a cornerstone of my views on urban design. So pick up a copy and follow along with Emily today!
  • Over at the Small Streets Blog, Phil LaCombe takes us on a guided tour of some of Copenhagen’s small streets. Why should we let those old European cities have all the fun? We can have small streets right here in Hyde Park!
  • America’s forgotten small street, the alley, is the subject of the latest Old Urbanist post. Charlie Gardner presents evidence that the alley is becoming less of an afterthought in new residential developments. Will the rise of functional and aesthetically pleasing alleyways pave the way (pun very much intended) to an overall reduction in street widths? Only time will tell.
  • Steven Vance of Grid Chicago details the trials and tribulations of reporting infrastructure problems. This issue, which I’m sure many Chicagoans are familiar with, while certainly symptomatic of bureaucratic logjam, is largely the result of overburdened, overengineered infrastructure that is part and parcel of automobile-centered design. The number-one priority of infrastructure maintenance is to ensure that cars can continue to drive on each and every street. Everything else is an afterthought.
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What Chicago Can Learn from Apple

The City of Chicago and Apple Inc. have more in common than you might think. Chicago is America’s Second City, while Apple manufactures the world’s second computer, the Mac. Both have experienced periods of innovation and periods of stagnation, rule by inspirational leaders and rule by inept bumblers, days in the limelight and days in the shadows. They both pride themselves in being a bit more human than their competitors, with Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods and working-class roots, and Apple’s longstanding opposition to corporate groupthink.

Right now, however, Apple and Chicago are headed in different directions. Perhaps no company in history has been more consistently successful than Apple has over the past decade. From the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad to the MacBook Air, Apple has continued to defy skeptics’ low expectations and produce vibrant computing and media platforms. And Apple’s first developer conference since the death of Steve Jobs has shown that the loss of their charismatic leader has not slowed them down one bit.

Chicago is a much different story. In the past decade, as a new article in the City Journal tells it, Chicago has failed to live up to its lofty promise. Today’s Chicago is characterized by job loss, declining population, bureaucratic corruption, and looming fiscal catastrophe.

Now, one could easily chalk up Apple’s success and Chicago’s failure to Apple’s being a tech company and Chicago’s being a Midwestern city, but that gives far too much credit to Chicago’s leaders and far too little to Apple’s. Instead, I’d like to explore a few reasons why Apple has thrived and how these might translate to running a city.

  1. A friendly, easy-to-use development platform
    Critics have demonized Apple for making the iPhone and iPad’s operating system, iOS, a closed platform, where developers have no choice but to offer their wares through Apple’s own App Store. A criticism of a similar nature is directed at both iOS and Apple’s desktop and laptop operating system, OS X, for being restricted to run only on hardware devices manufactured by Apple. Indeed, Apple’s seeming propensity for absolute control of its software and hardware was often cited as a reason for Apple’s flagging market share during the 1990s.

    Yet today the iOS platform is booming with this very same formula. In the extremely fast-paced world of mobile app development, the ease of having to develop for only a small range of hardware configurations has won the hearts of developers, as a recent New York Times article asserts. Development on Google’s rival Android platform is complicated by the myriad of possible screen sizes, processor speeds, and hardware variations. Apple, by keeping things simple, has won over developers. There is also a benefit to end-users: you can be reasonably certain as an iPhone or iPad user that any app you download has been thoroughly tested on your particular device, if not by the developer, then by other users. With Android, it’s much less clear.

    Chicago can learn a lot from this. Developers face not only burdensome regulations but the necessity of winning aldermanic support. Consequently, the only way to develop in Chicago is to spend a lot of money working the complicated bureaucratic system. Just as having to deal with complicated hardware variants drives developers away from Android and makes it harder for end users to tell what they’re getting, regulations and the necessity of political patronage drive developers away from Chicago and make it unclear whether the residents of Chicago are really getting their money’s worth with new developments. Apple has shown that providing simplicity for developers is good for everybody.

  2. Mastery of the user interface
    One of the hallmarks of Apple products over the years has been a fantastic user experience. After pioneering the consumer-ready personal computer in 1977 with the Apple II, the company, under the guidance of human-computer interface pioneer Jef Raskin, began to look beyond mere functionality for a user interface that would be not just useable but intuitive. The Macintosh was what emerged from these efforts, and ever since, Apple has focused on perfecting design over eking out megahertz. This is why Apple has had so many devotees through good times and bad: most people prefer a computer that is natural and familiar to use rather than one that is the most technologically impressive.

    Cities, however, are all too frequently not built to human specification. A good operating system should be stable, reliable, clean, responsive, and easy to navigate, and it should be built to keep you and your things safe. So should a good city. But the modern American city fails at many of these tasks. Their patterns of building make it harder to get around without buying an expensive and dangerous third-party peripheral. Their bureaucracies are often unreliable and unresponsive. The excesses of outdoor space are often unsafe and unclean due to underuse. Judging by these criteria, Chicago looks less like OS X and much more like Windows Me.

  3. Willingness to disobey the loudest voices
    Perhaps the most perverse consequence of the status quo bias is that the very nature of the status quo imbues its supporters with plenty of strong arguments. Defending the status quo is almost mindlessly easy: just point to anything anybody likes, and there’s your argument. Backing change (by which I mean specific change, as opposed to Obama-esque Hope and Change) is much more difficult, since one must often rely on far less tangible evidence. As a result, proponents of the status quo are gifted with the loudest, most memorable arguments, the unshakeable assertion that things are fine just the way they are.

    Since Steve Jobs’s 1997 appointment as interim CEO, Apple has exhibited a tenacious desire to buck the status quo. Jobs pulled the plug on the Macintosh clones, third-party hardware licensed to run Apple’s operating system, which had been permitted a few years earlier in an attempt to grow their software’s market share by replicating Microsoft’s model for distributing their Windows operating system. The move had worked—Apple’s share of the operating system market grew rapidly in the clone years—but Jobs understood Apple’s potential as a combined hardware and software company, a venture that could not be sustained with the clones around. This move drew criticism from the tech world, and it indeed lost the company quite a bit of market share, but it set the stage for all of Apple’s successes to come.

    Apple’s introduction of the iMac in 1998 was a revolution in the personal computer business, a kick in the rear of the status quo. The iMac was widely criticized by tech pundits for lacking a floppy drive, which at that time was the primary means of sharing personal data between computers. But the rapid rise of the Internet was already well underway, and Apple understood that in a few years, nobody would be using floppy drives. They could have put a floppy drive in the iMac to silence the critics and make it a bit more adaptable to people’s current usage patterns. But by leaving the floppy drive out, Apple took the lead in the Internet revolution and hastened the abandonment of the antiquated floppy. In subsequent years, Apple would play the same game with other technologies. I’m typing this post on a MacBook Air with no ethernet port for physical network connectivity and no optical drive. Just a few years ago, such omissions would be unthinkable, but again, Apple knew when it was time to leave the past behind. Yesterday, Apple introduced a new flagship high-end laptop, also without ethernet and an optical drive. No doubt we will hear some grumbling on these omissions, but Apple has gained enough credibility over the years that when it decides to leave the past behind, others follow.

    Cities change much more slowly and last much longer than computers, so the status quo bias is even more pernicious. While everybody in the tech world waits eagerly for the next innovation, few people care about innovation in urban design. I can hardly blame them, for innovation in urban design is so rare. Chicago has taken some small steps, such as the installation of protected bicycle lanes. But such projects are a far cry from the Burnham Plan. Nobody would even consider such a massive change to city infrastructure today. But if you give the status quo an inch, it will take a mile. People will fight for inches on a street with six lanes of traffic and four lanes of parking and for the amount of parking available on their block.

    Steve Jobs’s true genius was to recognize that no amount of catering to the status quo will ever be enough. To progress and thrive, bold new ideas are needed. One of Jobs’s first actions upon his return to Apple was to commission the Think Different advertising campaign. While it may not have sold many computers, it vividly crystallized Apple’s philosophy about change and progress by celebrating those who “see things differently” and “have no respect for the status quo.” “You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them,” the ad continues. “About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward.” This is one of the main reasons I began this blog. As I stated in my first post, I don’t necessarily believe that my somewhat radical ideas will ever be implemented. But by putting them into the public sphere, I can hope to change the nature of the debate about our neighborhood and our city, and that alone can have enormous consequences.

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The Rebirth of Retail

Much noise has been made in recent years about the death of retail. The global economic downturn aside, people are increasingly turning to online retailers for much of their shopping. This evolution of shopping habits is only just beginning, and I think it’s useful to compare it to the rise of big box retailers from the 1970s to the beginning of this century. Big box stores like Walmart and Best Buy gradually replaced smaller retailers who could not compete either on price or convenience. From an urban planning perspective, the rise of big box stores seems inevitable. An increasingly spread-out population which depends on automobile travel will prefer to have to find parking in as few places as possible, hence the development of indoor and strip malls. Onerous parking requirements and limited commercial zoning near residential areas sealed the deal for small retailers. Big box stores offered consumers the opportunity to buy a lot of things at once, which is a boon rather than a burden if you own an automobile, and their scale ensured that they could provide low prices.

Today, the Internet has shifted the playing field, and nobody is hurting more than big box retailers. Convenience and low prices, the erstwhile strengths of the big box, are the new hallmark of online retail. As online retail continues to mature and generations brought up online come of age, big box stores, and indeed our entire current strip-mall model of retail, are increasingly looking like unsustainable propositions.

So is there a place for physical retail locations in the age of the Internet? Absolutely! In fact, I believe a physical retail renaissance is possible, if our cities and their regulations will allow it. Just look at what the Internet has already done for real-life shopping: various consumer-oriented web sites and mobile apps have made it easier than ever not only to find what you’re looking for, but to determine where you’re likely to get the best service. Online communities have sprouted up for aficionados of just about any type of retail product. These communities have enormous knowledge bases, and are usually very willing to both patronize and promote physical retailers who exhibit the same level of knowledge and care about their products. These global opinion networks allow small retailers to profitably expand into some level of online business as well, which can help prop up a physical store financially.

Nevertheless, the urban design barriers to small retail, and indeed to any new retail in the age of Internet commerce, still exist. It’s simply too expensive to run a physical store, and it’s too inconvenient for people to travel to them. Both problems can be alleviated by changing zoning and parking regulations and increasing density. Allowing dense, walkable residential and commercial spaces to mingle makes affordable, convenient retail possible. I believe that if we allow such spaces to exist, innovation will flourish, and we will finally see physical retail locations that complement, rather than compete with, online retail.

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Midway Village, Phase 1: Part I

This is the first in a series of posts in which I will describe my vision for the first phase of a small streets village on the Midway, which I originally proposed in my first post. For this phase, I strive to be minimally intrusive to make the plan more palatable to a potentially hostile public.

Phase 1 will occupy the inner part of the Midway between the east- and west-bound roadways. The Metra tracks will form the eastern boundary, and Woodlawn Avenue will form the western boundary. Buildling on this plot would require building over only one existing street, Dorchester Avenue, which would be routed through the village at a much smaller scale. The plot comprises a bit over 12 acres, or 525,000 square feet, which is roughly half the size of Strand East in London.

The focal point of Phase I will be an open square, about 1.5 acres in area, centered around the statue of Masaryk (the name “Masaryk Square” has a nice ring to it). This might seem oversized for a 12-acre project, but if the goal is to expand to the whole Midway, an appropriately sized gateway is needed. The square will connect in two places to the 59th Street Metra station.

The main streets will be 15 feet wide, and the secondary streets will be 10 feet. The main streets will connect to the existing pedestrian paths on the north and south between Woodlawn and Dorchester, and will terminate at the north and south corners on Woodlawn. Secondary streets will fill in the gaps to provide appropriate access to buildings.

The diagram below shows a rough sketch of the layout, including potential courtyard areas. The pink areas are buildings, the yellow areas are streets and courtyards, and the black dot is the Masaryk statue.

Map of Midway Village, Phase 1

Even including the large square, more than 70% of the area is devoted to buildings, compared to less than 40% for some major US urban cores. Excluding the square and its surrounding buildings bumps this up to more than 80%. If we allow a reasonably generous 250 square feet per resident, and an average of three residential floors per building, then Phase 1 will house nearly 2,000 people, with plenty of additional space for retail. If we assume a 75% building density for the entire Midway from 59th Street to 60th, Cottage Grove to Stony Island, then more than 25,000 people can live on the Midway, even assuming very modest building heights!

Of course, a walkable small streets village should have more than just residences; in particular, there should be plenty of ground-level retail. In the next part of this series, I will discuss the scale of the buildings and the mix of uses they might contain.

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Infill Development

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.

Map of possible Blackstone infill development

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.

Posted in Hyde Park, Infill, Small Streets | 3 Comments