Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Small Streets for a Better Baltimore

Guest Blogger
Phil LaCombe
TND Planning Group Intern

In an era characterized by concern over rising transportation costs and the long-term environmental sustainability of our suburban mode of living, as well as rapid economic and demographic changes within our cities, a piece of the traditional pattern of living in our cities deserves revisiting. That crucial element of the sustainable city is the small street, found in Baltimore neighborhoods such as Fells Point, Federal Hill, Old Goucher, and Hollins Market.

Small streets have been a critical part of Baltimore’s urban fabric since the 1700s, when industry and commerce first clustered around the harbor. They continued to be an integral part of the expanding city until around 1920. During that time, small streets provided affordable housing for working class families close to jobs. The so-called alley houses provided ambitious new immigrant families of Baltimore with places of living more dignified than the tenements of other cities.

Because rowhouses on small streets tend to be simpler in architecture and smaller in size than the houses on nearby main streets, affordability is part of their nature. At the same time, the small rowhouses afford working-class people the opportunity to live in good neighborhoods. Planners and community leaders today realize that a mix of incomes amongst residents makes a neighborhood healthier and stronger than if it is homogenous. Furthermore, small streets can create affordable housing without any government subsidy.

Butchers Hill presents an excellent example of a neighborhood made affordable through small streets. The homes on East Baltimore Street are quite grand, but just around the corner down North Duncan Street in this photo are houses that are smaller and more affordable yet no less respectable. The two housing types co-exist harmoniously, complimenting each other to create an economically diverse neighborhood that is beautiful and stable.

In addition to being affordable places, small streets are what planners call livable places. Small streets attract people and bicycles, not cars. Building in a compact form creates a more livable environment where people can obtain many if not all of their daily needs nearby. There's no need to drive to the grocery store, library, bank, or café. Many people who live in small streets find it unnecessary to own a car. If a destination is not within walking or bicycling distance, compact neighborhoods that include small streets are often well-served by public transit.

Everyone knows the saying, "It takes a village to raise a child". Until half a century ago, the street was where children played and neighbors met in cities and towns throughout the world. "Villagers" didn't have to go out of their way to raise their neighbors' child, it was integrated into the social and urban fabric of daily life. Neighborhood streets were safe places because there were always people out, neighbors inadvertently self-policing simply by sitting outside and chatting. The streets of Baltimore and other U.S. cities adequately served this function until the onslaught of the private car. 

In his groundbreaking book Livable Streets, scholar Donald Appleyard demonstrated that as traffic increased, people knew fewer of their neighbors and used less of their street for socializing. Small streets discourage speeding and through-traffic with their design, and thereby free the street to reclaim its traditional role as playground and gathering place for residents.

Small streets offer an urban alternative to the suburban cul-de-sac. The cul-de-sac was the 20th century attempt to create a safe space for children to play in the street, and it did serve that purpose well. However, the side-effects included car dependency for all other activities, which only exacerbated the problem. Grandparents and other seniors past driving age were either isolated at home or shipped off to retirement communities, and parents of tweens were forced to play chauffeur between soccer matches and swim-meets. In contrast, small streets in a dense town or city environment provide all of one's needs within walking distance. Kids can walk to school and activities, and the older folks are near services, parks, their grand-kids, and each other.

Baltimore is fortunate to benefit from having small streets in a country where they are uncommon, and the alley houses Baltimore have a unique historic charm unlike houses found anywhere else in the United States. Unfortunately many small streets were demolished in the “urban renewal” era, making the preservation of those that remain that much more important. As the City of Baltimore works to rewrite its zoning code, it should seize the opportunity to include policies that will encourage the preservation of existing small streets and the creation of new small streets.

Want to learn more? Visit the Small Streets website at www.smallstreets.org.

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