What are the physical characteristics of the best streets in the world? What makes them great? To answer these questions, the city planner and urban designer who remained planning director of San Francisco for eight years and contributed to the urban design plan of San Francisco, Allan Jacobs, surveyed street users, and design professionals. He studied various street types and urban spaces of the world. To find an answer to these questions, he drew more than 200 illustrations and did an analysis. He drew a one sq. mile context map of various streets at the same scale. It made him understand the texture of the cities, street patterns, and urban life. He noted the street dimensions, plans, sections, and patterns of use and compared them with various streets, compiling them in a book called Great Streets.
The book describes the importance of streets for communities. It identifies the criteria for the best streets. The first part discusses fifteen streets, including medieval streets in Rome and Copenhagen, Venice Grand Canal, Parisian boulevards, and tree-lined residential streets in America. The author tries to find the reasons behind the less successful streets and the factors leading to the decline. In the second part, he discusses 30 other places, including areas from Australia, Japan, classical antiquity, European, and North America.
As city streets are designed by the local government and owned by the public, the author says that it is in the hands of the government whether they want to encourage or discourage walking. The author talks about street patterns of various places like San Francisco, Rome, Paris, Tokyo, America, New York, Portland, Basilica, Vancouver, and California. He discusses how street patterns create complexity, walkability, and messiness. On the map of one sq. mile, he counts the number of intersections a place has. The greater number of crisscrossing means it allows people to have more choices and messiness. Hence several people enjoy walking there. Where there is neatness, people don’t walk. The patterns alone are not responsible for creating a great street. Other variables affect the pedestrian experience. The density and the destination it leads you to are also extremely important in creating great streets.
Apart from the overall street pattern configuration, the author talks about various physical qualities closely associated with walkability. The qualities that encourage walking and make it a pleasant thing to do. These are comfort and leisure, shade in summer and sun in winter, and defined streets (either through trees or buildings). There should be certain qualities in the façade that excites the eyes of the pedestrians. Maintenance, entrances of various buildings, and features attracting people are a few other qualities that the author discusses to have a great street. He ends on a good note by providing strategies for making great streets.
The author has been into research and published various books in the urban design sector. The books include Great Streets, Looking at Cities, Making City Planning Work, The Boulevard, and The Good City. He taught at Berkeley for twenty-six years and continuously contributed to Places Magazine. While writing this book, he used observation and expertise in the subject as a tool for researching the design of the public realm.
The book got published in 1993. Before that, the researchers majorly discussed streets through the lens of social (Jane Jacobs – The death and life of great American cities, 1961) and visual aspect (Gordon Cullen – Townscape, 1961). Streets were discussed with respect to climate (Vitruvius and Palladio), their historical evolution (The Pedestrian Revolution; streets without cars, 1974), and even from the perspective of pedestrians. Author Camillo Sitte in his book ‘City Planning according to Artistic Principles (1889)’, discussed the physical aspects of the street and square. Hegemann, Werner, and Peets, Elbert, in their book ‘The American Vitruvius, An Architect’s Handbook of Civic Art (1922)’ discussed the physical aspects of the street. But there was rarely any discussion on what physical qualities of a street enhance walkability. It gave a fresh perspective to look at the design of streets.
The author uses more than 30 examples of various places in the book to list the qualities of a great street. It shows that the author has written this book, not for a particular area or a region but for an international audience. It targets the student architects, architects, and city planners who get to know the things to keep in mind while designing the cities using the appropriate academic terminology.
The relevance of the book is still today. There are various books written that talk about walkability and pedestrian experience (Cities for People (2010) by Jan Gehl, The Urban Section (2014) by Robert Mantho, City Comforts (1995) by David Sucher, The Street: A Quintessential Social Public Space (2013) by Vikas Mehta). But all of them give a different perspective to each topic. The joy of reading the ‘Great Street’ still after more than two decades from the time it was published shows the importance and knowledge the book still holds today.
Jacobs, A., 1993. Great Streets. s.l.:s.n.