Wide Streets as a Tool of Oppression

Wide streets are bad for cities. They encourage faster driving, which leaves all road users—pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers alike—less safe. They consume millions of acres of urban land, pushing uses further apart and exacerbating the problems of spread-out, auto-dependent development. And without some mechanism for pricing street use, such as congestion tolling, they mostly serve to make traffic worse through a phenomenon known as induced demand. Each of these facts on its own militates against the widening of urban roads or piercing new highways through our beleaguered downtowns.

But today I would like to make a less common observation about wide urban roads, namely that they have historically been tools of oppression—and could be again in any number of imaginable futures. Narrow streets create spaces that are easy for local residents to defend and blockade from invaders and state agents. Their winding nature and dynamic street frontage tends to thwart any one centralized vision, instead creating a framework for decentralized planning. As we will discuss below, this is not mere speculation, but a plain fact known to those in power, which has helped to motivate many of the infamous street widening projects throughout history.

Angle formed by the rue du Havre with Haussmann Boulevard in 1870, photographed by Charles Marville. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In Paris in 1853, Baron Haussmann began what would be one of the largest urban street widening project up to that point. The timing of this project is no accident. Five years earlier, King Louis-Philippe had been overthrown in the February Revolution of 1848, paving the way (if you will) for the ascension of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. Paris’s medieval urban streets—a genuinely emergent, unplanned network—played a starring role, with many working-class neighborhoods successfully thwarting invading troops through road blockades. Little surprise, then, that the newly crowned Bonaparte III prioritized the demolition and replacement of these narrow, winding streets with grand boulevards cutting through the heart of the city. The revised Paris also called for grand vistas and termination points that showed off the power of the new state and integrated state-oriented monuments into the framework of urban life. The effort was enormously unpopular at the time but ultimately successful: when the short-lived Paris Commune took root, French troops were able to march in and suppress the rebellion with relative ease.

A contemporary witness to these events, Karl Marx would characterize the Paris Commune as a model “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which Marx theorized would facilitate the transition from capitalism to communism. It’s ironic then that the heirs of Marx’s ideology, the USSR, would undertake to implement Haussmann’s visions in a half dozen of the major cities in its new Eastern European empire in the years after World War II. In newly conquered East Berlin, the Soviets would immediately begin the construction of Karl-Marx-Allee, a massive boulevard slicing up the city, designed to facilitate easy downtown access for cars and Soviet tanks alike, lined with monumental Stalinist structures designed to impose a communist aesthetic order on the cosmopolitan city. Similar urban widening projects were undertaken in other subject medieval cities, particularly after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and Prague Spring in 1968 revealed that urban invasions would be regular fare under the new regime.

Karl-Marx-Allee (Stalinallee at the time), Berlin, 1953. (Source: German Federal Archives via Wikipedia)

Construction of Interstate 94 in St. Paul, Minnesota, which led to the demolition of large parts of the historically African-American neighborhood of Rondo. (Source: Minnesota Historical Society)

This is not merely a story of the sins of an other. The U.S. Interstate Highway System—perhaps the greatest road widening project in human history—was sold in large part not as a transportation project but as a military project, a project both for national defense and ensuring internal order. New federal highways granted easy access for tanks and military equipment to America’s urban cores, which would be put to regular use in the political disturbances to come. A new, state-sanctioned mode of living would be enshrined, both in where the roads went and in where they didn’t, with strict separation of transportation modes, limited access, and massive elevated structures. And of course, in all this, the costs of this program fell hardest on America’s poor and minority neighborhoods.

In all cases, wide, straight, legible streets serve the interests of those in power. They allow for the easy mobilization of conventional forces and easier state management of society. And in too many cases, street widening and straightening projects have been used to dispossess and displace smallholders and marginal groups—small businesses, the poor, and racial and political minorities. In their place, wide streets are frequently designed to aesthetically impose a hegemonic vision of the good urban life. The narrow, winding streets that characterize virtually all human cities laid out before the Enlightenment—with notable exceptions in history’s worst authoritarian states—work against each of these. They create spaces that small groups of poorly armed people can defend. By efficiently using urban land, they create space for all comers. And with their unplanned storefronts and winding tendencies, they prevent the imposition of any single ideological vision on cities.

There are more than enough utilitarian cases for fighting road widenings and new urban freeways. And in the stodgy halls and meeting rooms in which public policy gets made, they may be more than enough. But we are selling our case short if we fail to make the case for how urban design can uphold or undermine a liberal society. A free country, as with a free city, depends on the wide distribution of power across various individuals and institutions. In practice, distributed power means the right to self-defense and strong protections for property rights, whatever the plans of the rich and powerful may be. Letting narrow streets be fulfills both of those objectives. Our liberal urban society is strengthened in a subtle way by narrow streets. They create a visual order that denies one ideology or religion primacy (in contrast to the monumental role of a cathedral or government building at the head of a broad boulevard). They privilege local knowledge and thwart systematic controls. They create a shared space that forces different road users to commingle and compromise. Thus, street width isn’t merely a “technical” problem to be resolved by experts. It’s a problem that goes to the very heart of the question: What kind of society do we want?

Motomachi Naka Street in Yokohama, Japan. This narrow street is a highly productive place where small, local businesses thrive, and a place whose physical form resists the imposition of top-down, grand designs in favor of a more emergent order. (Source: Ted McGrath via Flickr.)

Cover photo: Completion of Boulevard Haussmann in Paris. Source: Wikimedia Commons