How to Make Better, Smaller Streets

Thanks, perhaps, to Brigham Young and the turning radius of pioneer-era wagons, Provo has its fair share of daunting, dangerous and extra wide thoroughfares. And while these streets may have been wonderful in the late 1800s, they’ve tended to wind up as stroads today.

I’ve written many times on this blog about the superiority of narrow lanes over bloated roadways, but wanting a thing is different than actually getting it. In fact, putting narrow lanes into a western city full of stroads may be one of the hardest things a city might undertake. How, after all, do you fundamentally modify the underlying infrastructure of a region?

If you’re San Francisco, you do it one street-stroad at a time.

In the just-released 2012 American Society of Landscape Architects professional awards, Oakland-based Hood Design received an honor award for the Powell Street Promenade. The project took one of the busiest streets in San Francisco and replaced parking with park space:

The Powell Street Promenade provides a 6’2” extension of the existing sidewalk, combining material innovation, technology and urban design into a new landscape that offers refuges for pedestrians amid the street’s busy vehicular and historic cable car traffic. It is the largest example of the city’s “Pavement to Parks” program, which seeks to reclaim swathes of urban land for pedestrian amenities.

The street now has larger spaces for people and less imposing pavement. It’s a win-win.

New benches, barriers, and pedestrian space have replaced parking in San Francisco.

Retrofitting an entire city to fix every too-large street is probably not going to happen anywhere. But this example shows how small changes can create interesting new spaces and help a city move in the right direction. And though this particular example may be costly or particularly suited to the Bay Area, there’s no reason Provo couldn’t deploy a similar but localized version.

The four-lane Freedom Blvd in downtown Provo. Note the car in the bottom right quarter of this picture. That car’s lane is probably twice as wide as the car itself. There’s also no on-street parking on this street, so that lane’s width is basically useless; it accomplishes nothing besides encouraging speeding and discouraging pedestrian use. If Provo wants to increase foot traffic downtown, pointlessly bloated lanes like this need to be fixed. San Francisco’s new project offers one example of how to do that.

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