Human Scale Patterns: Neighborhood Streets

Human Scale Patterns: Neighborhood Streets


I recently began a series exploring some simple patterns of human scale neighborhood design. These patterns, which I have observed in my own neighborhood, have often been overlooked as we now plan, design and live at the scale of the car rather than the person. These simple patterns are the key to building lasting value in neighborhoods. They are crucial to reinvesting in established neighborhoods and are easily replicable in new neighborhoods. However, we must have the discipline to design at a human scale, and not mistake superficial aesthetics as the source of “neighborhood character.”

The second of the three crucial patterns that I have identified for designing valuable, walkable neighborhoods is neighborhood streets. Front entry features and understated driveways and garages are the others.

Walkable neighborhoods draw a substantial portion of their value from how well the public realm is designed. The public realm establishes the image and identity of a neighborhood, and streets are the central feature.

shaded neighborhood street

Neighborhood streets is one of three crucial patterns identified in designing valuable, walkable neighborhoods (Image credit: Robert Whitman of Gould Evans).

Our most valuable neighborhood streets are designed to a “human scale”, which means best experienced by people on foot. These streets create value in many ways, including allowing for opportunities for greater housing variety within a consistent neighborhood design, providing amenities that people will pay a premium for, and establishing places that will continue to draw investment through many lifecycles.

The pattern of human scale neighborhood streets has three primary goals, which run counter to typical subdivision streets that are designed simply for the automobile. These goals are:

  • Increased connections – walkable neighborhoods must be near and connected to places worth walking to, such as a park, school, work or shopping.
  • Slow speeds – neighborhood streets accommodate cars, but only at speeds that are slow enough to make walking comfortable and safe.
  • Pleasant and social spaces – neighborhood streets need generous spaces designed exclusively for people, a sense of the enclosure and comfort and visual interest along the streetscape – all things that are provided by street trees.
street trees in the fall

The pattern of human scale neighborhood streets has three primary goals – to increase connections, slow down cars and create pleasant public spaces for pedestrians (Image credit: Robert Whitman of Gould Evans).

When considering patterns and simple rules for designing neighborhood streets for people, the following elements are important:

1. The Network: Shorter blocks are easy to navigate on foot and provide a good block structure for transitions in housing types and intensity. They also disperse traffic so no single street becomes an undesirable “traffic mover,” and allow for many different types of streets within the network. Neighborhood street designs work best when you have a well-connected street network with typical blocks no larger than 350’ x 700’.

people walking outside in neighborhood

Our most valuable neighborhood streets are designed to a “human scale”, which means best experienced by people on foot (Image credit: Robert Whitman of Gould Evans).

2.The Street (travel lanes): Neighborhood streets must be designed for slow speeds to enhance both quiet residential areas, and vibrant areas with lots of people on foot. This generally means streets should be designed for speeds under 25 mph in all cases, and less than 20 mph in many cases. Another component to these streets is maximizing on-street parking, which accomplishes multiple goals of human scale neighborhood design. The rules of thumb for neighborhood streets travel lanes are:

  • Through lanes: Lanes that accommodate through traffic in both directions. They should be 9’ to 10’ (even per AASHTO design guidance, 9’ is acceptable for lower speed, lower volume or residential areas). This results in the following street widths:
street configurations
  • Yield Lanes: Lanes that accommodate two-way traffic, but only one at a time in certain spots. These are often our best and most valuable neighborhood streets. They require “queuing areas” where two cars can slow to pass, but otherwise may only be wide enough for one car due to the narrowness (either of the road itself or typically due to parked cars). This type of street produces very neighborhood-friendly speeds of 15 to 20 mph, while still providing a high degree of connectivity. The lane widths for yield streets should be 11’ to 14’ (2-way travel). This results in the following street widths:
street configurations

“Queuing areas” are formed by specific areas of the streetscape that interrupt on-street parking, allowing a wider portion of the roadway to be used by moving vehicles, even if they need to slow or stop to allow passage. This is typically accomplished with driveways, bulb-outs or other areas designed to interrupt on-street parking.

neighborhood street lined with trees

Neighborhood streets must be designed for slow speeds to enhance both quiet residential areas, and vibrant areas with lots of people on foot (Image credit: Robert Whitman of Gould Evans).

3. The Streetscape: Neighborhood streets should be designed as a social space for people first. A comfortable streetscape is the most critical factor for creating lasting value and enduring character. This involves a generous sidewalk with buildings and lots designed to engage this space.

The rules of thumb for neighborhood streetscapes are:

  • Landscape Amenity (Tree Lawn or Tree Wells): The tree lawn should help buffer people on foot from the roadway and provide a great deal of shade for the street. Regular spacing of street trees also serve as an additional traffic calming effect through their sense of enclosure. Tree lawns should be designed to allow regular spacing of medium or large shade trees – typically every 20’ to 50’. This results in the following tree lawn widths:
landscape amenities
  • Sidewalk: Sidewalks should at least be wide enough for two people to walk comfortably side-by-side and increase with the importance of the connection or degree of pedestrian traffic expected. This results in the following sidewalk widths:
landscape amenities

The different assembly combinations within these rules results in a wide variety of potential neighborhood street types, and all will fit within a 40’ to 76’ right-of-way. Designs that deviate from these rules and patterns are likely not neighborhood streets that build value, but rather streets that prioritize the car at the expense of human scale and neighborhood character.

street without trees vs. street with trees

Street trees create a more vibrant, walkable neighborhood and a more pleasing public space for pedestrians (Image credit: Robert Whitman of Gould Evans).

-The Kansas City Planning Studio of Gould Evans

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