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Book Review: Street Design - The Secret to Great Cities and Towns

Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns

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The central tenet espoused by Victor Dover and John Massengale in Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns (2014; Wiley; 448 p., $85) is that the way street designers (in this case, engineers) have shaped streets in the last 70 years or so has negatively impacted the cities and towns that they serve. The most obvious reason for this is because of transportation engineers' reliance on the functional class system, which classifies all thoroughfares into one of four classes: local, collector, arterial, and highway. The two concomitant qualifiers to the functional classes are a simple urban/rural divide (e.g., urban arterial, local collector, etc.). Underlying those classifications, however, is the assumption that roads are nothing more than means of conveyance. That, the authors argue, runs counter to traditional notions of streets as locations where activities can occur as well as places to move through. This has resulted in the “sprawl” phenomenon, creating places that are hostile to pedestrians and bicyclists - in other words, they are degrading the public space.

By shifting our understanding of what streets are and what should occur there, and by learning from past examples of successful streets, American cities and towns can recover their public realm and along with it their sense of place and identity. To that end, the authors offer a typology of streets that go beyond the four functional classes, and argue that a suburban classification be added to the traditional urban/rural conception. Some types, such as boulevards and perhaps multiway boulevards, will be familiar at least in name to most Americans. Others, such as promenades and ramblas, may be less familiar, and in fact are more common abroad than they are stateside.

At issue isn’t just how we conceive of streets, but who makes decisions about their design and construction. The authors note that the federal highway system has often left main streets bereft by railroading through them and eliminating elements that might give them more character. The authors suggest that returning to local control of such important streets would result in greater care and investment in how they are configured, and would add to placemaking activities rather than detract from them.

Of course, various movements have arisen in recent decades to combat the placelessness of our streets and cities, most nobably the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) and the Complete Streets movement. The authors incorporate ideas from both into their examples, but they are no mere expounders of doctrine - they are especially critical of the Complete Streets movement, noting that it is well-intentioned but often displays a one-size-fits-all mentality that is not always context-appropriate and, when used ubiquitously, can create a sort of sameness that runs counter to its aims.

While the book includes topics such as classifications and typologies, the bulk of the text is devoted to a detailed and nuanced analysis of case study streets. Some are celebrated for their excellence, some are decried as cautionary tales, and many have both positives and negatives that can be learned from.

Street typology. As might be expected, many of the examples are drawn from overseas - most frequently France and the U.K. - but many are from the U.S. as well, and not just from big cities like New York but also from smaller burghs such as Montgomery, Alabama and Beaufort, South Carolina.

In the end, the authors recommend that planners and designers take the principles they espouse to heart, but also to trust their own instincts in decision making - if you feel it is useful and feel it is beautiful, the authors advise, repeat it.