What Makes a Great Street?

In 1961, a woman named Jane Jacobs sat in her NYC apartment window and observed her neighborhood. When she wrote about what see saw, her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, became one of the seminal works on Urban Planning in the 20th Century. At the time it was revolutionary.

50 years later, her observations still dominate the thinking on how great Cities work. Great Streets San Diego has adopted her 4 principles and expanded on them with some 21st century input. She put it best; “To generate exuberant diversity in a city’s streets and districts, four conditions are indispensable;”

Good Street Design
Good Street Wall Architecture
A Mixture of Primary Uses
People (Density)

These four conditions must exist in synergy in order to create good urban streets and neighborhoods. No single one of the four elements alone will create a great urban space, however starting with one can act as a catalyst for the creation of the others. Click on a principle to learn more about each.





Good Street Design

Grid Interrupted: A grid pattern of streets works best for cities. However, grids can create long vistas, sometimes destroying a sense of place. Interrupting the grid with plazas, parks, buildings, or diagonal streets, provides relief from vistas with infinite vanishing points. 

Short Blocks: Research has shown that providing frequent street intersections is beneficial to pedestrians, businesses, as well as traffic. Block sizes vary from City to City, but one will find that areas with short blocks are generally those where businesses thrive, and were people want to be. A quick look around San Diego proves the point. 

Complete Street Design: Following WWII the car became king. The Interstate system was born, and development was centered on cars and driving. Street design was based on making traffic flow as smoothly and efficiently as possible. People on the street were seen as impediments to the smooth flow of traffic, and development encouraged the separation of people from cars. As a result, we built cities that are void of people on the street, and in some cases, we built cities that are void of sidewalks.

Our understanding of streets has changed. Now we know that people on the streets not only create more interesting places to be, but also help trigger economic growth and spur development. Something a parked car could never do.

Complete Street Design, as advocated by the National Complete Street Coalition gives equal consideration to all users of the streets. The street is a place where people live, work, play, and move. It includes vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, trees, sidewalks, and the buildings which define its shape and form. Complete Streets are designed for multi-modal transportation, — in other words, for bicycles, pedestrians of all ages and abilities, public transit, commerce, as well as personal cars.

Good Street Wall Architecture

“Design is People” said Jane Jacobs, and if the goal of a great street is to attract people, then goal of its architecture must also be to attract people.

Architectural Diversity: Uniformity creates monotony. Monotony is boring. A good Street Wall must have variety; Old and new buildings, a mixture of heights, and a mixture of architectural styles.

HWP: Good Height to (street) Width Proportions (HWP)

Streets are like rooms, and the buildings that line them are the walls. Just like a room, it is important that the proportions of the “room” create a good sense of Place.

Why does HWP matter? Different HWP ratios will invoke a different feeling and a different sense of Place. Typically, if an HWP is too low, the street will not have a good sense of place. People will not want to be on that street. Yet in urban settings the goal is to attract people. It is people who create lively, exciting streets, who fill the sidewalk cafes and stores, and that help trigger economic growth. To quote famous urbanist William H. Whyte, “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.” Attract people, and even more will be attracted.

HWP is the ratio of the Height of the street wall, to Width of the street. For example, if the buildings that form the street wall are 30 feet tall, and the street is 60 feet wide, then the HWP is 1:2. 30:60 = 1:2. If the buildings (street wall) are 180 feet tall and your street is 60 feet wide, then the HWP is 3:1.  180:60 = 3:1.

Each HWP creates a different feeling – a different sense of Place. A 3:1 ratio (think major urban downtown) feels different than a 1:4 ratio (think suburban retail strip). Typically, if an HWP is too low, the street will not have a good sense of place. For a more complete description with graphics and pictures, please visit the website for St Louis Great Streets Initiative:

 A Consistent “Wall”: Building are to be built to the Right of Way, and maintain a visual street wall plane. Setbacks, arcades, and other devises that provide physical or psychological barriers to people on the street are to be avoided.

People oriented design: Buildings at the street level must be engaging and attract people. Retail storefronts, sidewalk cafes, ledges on which to sit, are samples of good street level design that attracts people. At minimum, all street level glass must be at clear glass with activity on the interior side. Blank walls are not to be allowed on Street fronts.

A Mixture of Primary Uses

A minimum of two primary uses to insure the presence of people at all times
(Look for more on this topic coming soon)

People – Density

“You can’t rely on bringing people downtown, you have to put them there.” – Jane Jacobs
(Look for more on the benefits on density coming soon)


Required Reading

Jane Jacobs Book    Death and Life of Great American Cities -Jane Jacobs

Click images to purchase at Amazon.com

CITY: Rediscovering the Center – William H. Whyte     City by William H Whyte



Recommended Reading

Planetizen Top Book Picks

Triumph of the City:
How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier – Edward L. Glaeser

The Rise of the Creative Class:
And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life – Richard Florida


Cities = Elephants (kind of)

Are cities large, living organisms? It turns out that Elephants and Cities have a lot in common. Physicist Geoffrey West set out to apply the laws of organisms to cities. What he discovered is fascinating. Did you know that cities have a unique rhythm, and that rhythm effects how its inhabitants walk and talk? San Diegans walk, talk, and work differently than their counterparts in Seattle. And yes … there’s a mathematical equation that proves it. This podcast from Radiolab is worth a listen. Cities – Radiolab http://www.radiolab.org/2010/oct/08/ You can read more about Geoffrey West and his theories in this New York Times article.



If You Build It They Will Come

It seems counterintuitive. In fact, all these years we have been widening our roads and freeways with the understanding that wider roads reduce congestion. Instead the opposite may be true according to several recent studies, including this one featured on NPR. When more lanes are added, they simply fill up with traffic. If you build it – cars will come.
More Roads to Traffic – NPR Read the article here
Click Here to Listen

Building Value — A conservative’s approach to planning

Charles Marohn for Strong Towns goes one on one with a professed urban planning critic/radio host.  If you are not familiar with Strong Towns, Mr. Marohn advocates for planning and infrastructure building that results in a sustainable return on investment. He notes that the USA’s post WWII development patterns are financially unsustainable, and that cities now saddeled with heavy debt required to maintain them, must change their way of development or face dire consequences.

Click here to Listen


Jane Jacobs: Neighborhoods

From Active Living Network, a project of The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. An interview with legendary author, Jane Jacobs, who wrote “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” The film explores the role of the built environment in physical activity and public health. 9:45 Total Length

Rethinking Streets for Success:

Why does good street design matter? This video provides a compelling answer. Worth the 10 minute watch.


Changing the Conversation Series (in Uptown):  
sometimes the issues need to be looked at in a different way … 

Part 1:   from Parking to People
Part 2:   from Building Heights to Place Making
Part 3:   from Density to Livable Neighborhoods (coming soon)

Transportation Plan for Uptown Community Plan Update

Uptown 21C

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