November 2, 2005

You’re More Important Than My Car

My parents' neighborhood doesn't have brick sidewalks, faux gas lamps or sidewalk cafes. But their neighborhood in an inner suburb of New York is extremely walkable nonetheless, and that's due to more than the presence of sidewalks, fairly dense development/small lot sizes and actual destinations you can walk to (local stores).

Those all help, of course. But the design of the homes and blocks also goes a long way toward making a walker-friendly streetscape.

Streets are relatively narrow - when cars are parked, traffic has to slow down. The nearby artery road has one lane of traffic each way and a wide buffer between sidewalk and cars.

Homes are fairly close to the street, and windows face invitingly to the sidewalk. Many have front porches where people can (and do) sit to watch the neighbors walk by. You feel like you're walking in a neighborhood, and there could be friendly eyes on the street watching.

And, in design from a bygone era, most garages are not attached to the houses presenting huge car entryways to the street, but are tucked farther away in back of the homes. Even two-car garages in such designs don't negatively impact the ambiance, because often the driveway is one vehicle-width-wide at the sidewalk, and then opens up to be wider behind the house.

It's hard to overstate what this does to improve the appeal of a streetscape to a pedestrian. It all but shouts: Your presence walking by my home is welcome! Your sensory enjoyment is more important to me than where I park my vehicle!

Huge 2- and 3-car garages built up at street levels, with doorways in some cases even closer to the sidewalk than the house itself, usually give quite a different - if unintentional - message: This neighborhood is built for the drive-up convenience of my vehicles, not for you.

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