The Practical Genius of Old American Main Streets

It can be such a pleasure to stroll down a street that was was developed in the first part of the 20th Century, or earlier. More often than not, these places are walkable, pedestrian-scaled, and filled with storefronts. Why is it so hard for modern developers to create places like these?

Graeme Street in Pittsburgh, a walker's paradise built in another time. Photo: Urban Indy

These streetscapes evolved out of a very different set of regulatory, political, and financial realities than what exists today, says Graeme Sharp on Network blog Urban Indy. And it’s worth exploring what has changed:

The truth is that those multi-story, mixed-use buildings lining the street were built by a different culture. We are a different people now, and we demand different things from our built environment.

One interesting point Graeme makes is that current fire safety standards make buildings with shared walls illegal to construct in some places. But modern obstacles to walkability can be undone. Take mandated parking, for instance:

Minimum parking requirements, whether for permitting compliance or loan approval, have been the single greatest enemy of the traditional building technique. The need for parking spaces based on square footage means that adding an additional level to a building requires more parking. And in an urban area, land is a limited resource. Building a parking garage is far too costly and complex a process when considering the needs of so many varied businesses on a single street, and so the only solution is to close the business and relocate where land is plentiful.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Deron Lovaas at NRDC’s Switchboard blog puts out some ideas to make transit more fun. Reconnecting America reports on the signs that the U.S. housing market is evolving toward walkable urbanism. And Greater Greater Washington chafes at the thought of paying for massive parking facilities for a new stadium for the Washington Redskins.