Build-To Lines vs. Active Streets

Last week's post about "Good Enough Urbanism" sparked a lot of conversation and ruffled a lot of feathers. That's a good thing. When we talk about reforming the way things are built, we're talking about redirecting a big ship with enormous inertia. We need to be very interested in exactly how much change will be enough to result in the ship taking a course we can live with, and I think the conversation about what constitutes "Good Enough Urbanism" is helpful in that regard.

There are some nuances that were brought up which I think are worth exploring in more detail. Today I want to take a look at one of those nuances: the importance of buildings framing the street.

The urbanist rule of thumb is that buildings need to frame the street, and that instead of having setback requirements which make it impossible to frame the street, cities should have the reverse: build-to lines that require the building to be close to the right of way.

This is a good rule of thumb. However, the real world application can be a little more challenging. Let's look at two contrasting examples:

1 - Colorado St., Downtown; Austin, TX.

(click for street view)

Here is a typical example of downtown commercial buildings built to the extent of their lot. Geometrically, these buildings frame the street well, but the interface on these buildings is pretty terrible. There are few doors, and the doors are far apart. There are some windows, but these are elevated and tinted for the privacy of the people inside. The total effect here is a pretty barren street. The fact that the street itself is overscale doesn't help things either.

2 - Guadalupe St., north of UT; Austin, TX.

(click for street view)

Here we have a strip mall with pseudo on-street parking. It's got a couple of restaurants, a flower shop, and a vacant space. As you can see there are also some apartments in the background. The street itself is what Chuck likes to call a "Stroad". The buildings here aren't great, but because there is an interesting mix of activities on this street, as well as a better distribution of land uses, Guadalupe St. is noticeably more vibrant than Colorado St.

My question for you: which of these streets has better buildings?

When you're dealing with politically compromised real-world urban development codes, the buildings on Colorado St. are more likely to be seen as "acceptable," while the buildings on Guadalupe St. are more likely to be seen as non-compliant, the main reason being the parking in front. The Guadalupe St. building has off-street parking that wrecks the official sidewalk. The buildings on Colorado St. frame the street, they have inhabited ground floors, and they don't have cars parking across the sidewalk.

I would argue, however, that this is the wrong way to look at these things. The buildings on Colorado St. give you nothing to walk to or from, and frankly creating a boring and inhospitable environment. The buildings on Guadalupe St. are interesting during most hours, and while the official public sidewalk is ruined by their parking area, they do have a wide pedestrian area including outdoor seating etc. against the building.

Because the Guadalupe St. environment is interesting, it attracts people, it activates the street (if only barely) and that makes it "good enough." The Colorado St. environment does not attract people, does not activate the street, and that makes it not "good enough."

A final point on this example:

The Guadalupe St. example is far from ideal, and it is not a design I would recommend be replicated. However, when you're dealing with the messy reality of existing American places, most of which are terrible for human beings, of the two I think Guadalupe St. could be improved much more easily. If the street itself were put on a road diet, converted to one lane each direction with a center turn lane and angled on-street parking, the space in front of the Guadeloupe St. building could become a 15-20' wide pedestrian zone with tree plantings and shady outdoor seating.

Conversely, if you tamed Colorado St. and significantly improved the pedestrian realm against those buildings, retrofitting them to activate the space would still be difficult. Besides the fact they are single-use monoliths, they have elevated ground floors which would make it difficult to program any street-oriented activity into.

In closing, two takeaways:

First, rules of thumb are rules of thumb. We should be careful about applying them too literally and not giving ourselves room for experimentation and innovation.

Second, "Good Enough Urbanism" is about activating the street right now, and also about being readily "improvable" tomorrow. When we think about whether a place is good or bad, we should carefully consider how easy it would be for us to retrofit it to be a productive contributor to a repaired public realm.