Strength Test #3: If your favorite street disappeared, could it be rebuilt somewhere else?

This article is part of a series on the Strong Towns Strength Test, a simple method to help determine your town's strength and resilience. This series offers step-by-step guides for giving your town the test along with ideas for actions you can take to help your town grow stronger.  We'll publish one article in this series every couple weeks. You can read all our previous Strength Test guides here.

The question we're exploring today is #3 on the Strong Towns Strength Test:

Imagine your favorite street in town didn’t exist. Could it be built today if the construction had to follow your local rules?
My personal favorite street in Milwaukee, WI—Brady Street. (Photo by Rachel Quednau)

My personal favorite street in Milwaukee, WI—Brady Street. (Photo by Rachel Quednau)

Picture a favorite street in your town. Now imagine that it’s tragically destroyed and the land underneath must be abandoned. Could you reconstruct that block—with its architectural style, types of uses, street design, etc.—somewhere else in the area?

Answering this question helps us to understand how restrictive your zoning and building codes are. It shows us whether your town is allowing the natural progression of development as neighborhoods become more desirable and uses intensify, or whether your town restricts developers, home owners and business owners in a way that stifles growth and productivity.

We use your favorite street as an example because it’s most likely a street that’s working really well—successful, productive and beloved in your community—and when we see something that works well, it only makes sense to try to replicate it elsewhere. If your town is preventing the best street in its city limits from being recreated, that tells us a lot about the outlook for future success in your community.

In other words, if you can’t replicate the best thing your town has going for it, you've got a problem.

How to take the test

This strength test challenge requires some research skills in order to dig into your local government’s codes. Be patient and ask for help from a government staffer or a savvy friend if needed.

1.  Pick your street. For many of us, there’s a street that comes to mind fairly instantly when we’re asked to pick our favorite. (For me, that's Brady Street, pictured above, which is a few blocks from my house.) If that’s not the case for you, consider which streets are the most enjoyable to spend time on, which streets are home to at least two of your favorite shops or restaurants, which streets are always busy with people and activity, etc. If your favorite street stretches for several blocks, it’s simplest to pick just one block that’s illustrative of the rest of the street. (Although if you want to study the whole length of the street, go for it!)

A beloved street in New York City (Photo by Andrew Price)

A beloved street in New York City (Photo by Andrew Price)

2.  Describe the street. Visit the street in person with a laptop or notebook and take note of:

  • The design of the street. How wide is the street and how many lanes does it have for driving vs. parking? How wide are the sidewalks? Is the street one-way or two? What kind of intersection controls does the street have (stop signs, stop lights, no controls)? You can measure specifics later on Google maps, but make a rough estimate now.
  • The types of uses. Are there mostly single-family homes, two-story mixed-use buildings, high-rise office buildings? Are they owner- or renter-occupied? Again, you can take a more thorough look at uses on Google maps and your municipal property search site afterward.
  • The style of the buildings. Do they come right up to the street or do they have setbacks? Do they have awnings and windows that front the street? What colors are they painted? How tall are they? Taking photos to review later can help with this part of the process, too.
  • The parking. Is there on-street parking or lots or ramps? Where is the parking located (in front of buildings, behind buildings, etc.)? Is bike parking available?

3.  Once you’ve finished your on-location work, head back to a computer and research any additional items. Visit Google maps or your city’s website to learn more about the specific uses, width of street, etc.

4.  Now that you’ve developed a clear picture of this street, find out if it can be replicated. (You might have a hunch about the answer to this already if you can’t think of any other streets in your town that are similar to your favorite street.) Head to your municipality's website to:

  • Look up your local zoning codes. This part requires a particular level of patience. When I tested this out in my own city, I had some issues getting the GIS software to work on my browser and then it took a while to fully understand the different layers on the map. If your city doesn’t have an interactive map available, they should, at the very least, have their zoning codes published online, with a list of which areas are zoned for which uses. 
  • Find out your city’s building codes. Consider setbacks, fire safety rules, door and window requirements, etc. You can get as detailed as you want.
  • Research street design rules. What sorts of rules about width of lanes, one-way vs. two-way, on-street parking, etc. govern street design in your town? Be aware that different roads are governed by different entities (city, county or state).
  • Investigate parking minimum rules. Take a look at our national database of parking minimum laws and if you don't see your town on the map, research your local policies (then please add it to the map afterward if you'd like to help us out).

5.   Finally, compare your favorite street to local ordinances. Compare your notes in Steps 2 & 3 to the ordinances you discovered in Step 4. Now ask yourself, with all of these rules in mind, could this street reasonably be built somewhere new or is that out of the question?

Strong Towns member Zvi Leve leads a walking tour  in his neighborhood in Montreal. (Photo by Zvi Leve)

Strong Towns member Zvi Leve leads a walking tour in his neighborhood in Montreal. (Photo by Zvi Leve)

Next Steps

Don't get too bummed out if your answer to this strength test question is "no." For most towns, that's the case. Here are some ways to begin tackling this challenge and turning your no into a yes.

1.  Lead a walking tour of your favorite street. The good news is that your favorite street is not going to disappear tomorrow. Use that to your advantage. Take local leaders and neighbors on a walking tour of your favorite street and point out how much it has going for it. Discuss why the street design, building design and mix of uses make this street so successful and beloved, and ask why we can’t build more streets like it. It helps if you practice beforehand, considering what you want to highlight, and it’s even better if you can research the history of the street to show why it's worked so well for so long.

2.   Pick an area of focus. We covered a lot of issues in this Strength Test question—parking minimums, zoning, street design, and more. If you’re hoping to encourage your town to allow the creation of more places like your favorite street, you’d do well to heed Strong Towns staff member, Kea Wilson’s, advice about picking one issue to start with. She writes:

Start with the big picture, and keep cutting until you have a few key actions that need no further explanation, then pick the most actionable one today.

Choose an issue that has practical applications in your town. For instance, do you know of a local developer who wants to build a new commercial space but can’t afford to construct parking next do it? Bring the issue of parking minimums in front of your city council using this as an example. Are you concerned about cars driving too fast down a wide-laned street? Invite your local planners and engineers to a meeting to discuss this dangerous street and how relaxing requirements around lane width and narrowing lanes in key areas could solve the problem. For more tips, read Kea's article, "So You Want to Build a Strong Town."

3.   Learn how to be a small-scale developer. Start fighting restrictive zoning and building codes from the bottom-up, by becoming a developer and learning to work around them or against them. Our friends at the Incremental Development Alliance lead excellent workshops and bootcamps to help you get started. They can also walk your city through a “stress test” to see which regulations are a particular hindrance to certain types of development.

Have you taken this test? Let us know how your town scored in the comments.

(Top photo by Johnny Sanphillippo)

Related stories