Earlier this week I wrote about how height to width ratios are important for creating a sense of place. I also argued that Utah struggles with getting these ratios right because our streets are so wide.
So what can we do about that?
While building taller buildings along our wide streets may be one answer, that’s not realistically going to happen anytime soon; there are just too many streets to line them all with tall buildings. It’s also not necessarily going to solve the problem; wide, noisy, and unsafe streets might feel better when lined with taller buildings, but they’ll still be problematic.
An easier and cheaper solution is to use trees to produce more hospitable height to width ratios. Here’s an example from downtown Salt Lake City:
In the picture above, the trees on the left and the building on the right create a kind of street wall, seemingly with a ratio of about 1:1.5. That’s pretty good. The street wall falls apart midway through the block when the buildings give way to parking lots, and the street has a lot of other problems, but it’s still better than a lot of Salt Lake streets because it creates a more defined sense of enclosure.
An even more exciting way to use this idea is to actually put trees down the middle of the street, effectively creating two parallel one-way streets with their own distinct enclosures.
Probably the best local example of this idea that immediately comes to mind is Center Street in Provo:
Center Street in Provo is actually quite wide. But I’ve always been surprised when walking along Center Street at how it doesn’t feel miserable and stroad-like, as many streets do.
The reason it feels better, I think, is because the trees create a psychological barrier, kind of like an implied line in visual art, that breaks up the space. The result is that even though the street is wide and the buildings small, there’s close to a 1:1 height-to-width ratio along much of Center Street, assuming we count each side of the street as its own distinct space lined by a “wall” of trees.
It’s also worth noting that the trees along Center Street are a bit scrappy and need replacing due to poor health. But despite their problems, the trees work, showing that it doesn’t actually take much to solve the problems associated with expansive, place-killing streets.
Broadway in Salt Lake City has the potential to pull off something similar:
I’m not sure why designers of the street above chose to plant dinky trees that will probably never get tall, but in theory this street could do exactly the same thing with height-to-width ratios that’s happening in Provo.
Just around the corner from the picture above, there’s another interesting example:
While I applaud the effort in the picture above, I’ve included it because I think it fails. For starters, the trees look like the kind that won’t get big enough to have an impact on the height-to-width ratio. Just as significantly, there is no pedestrian space in the median, which isn’t the case on Broadway or Center Street. In both of those examples, the two sides of the street feel distinct — again, like parallel one-ways — because the median pedestrian space means both sides are lined with sidewalks.
However, in that last picture, the median is an unusable decoration. Pedestrians aren’t welcome, and the end result is that all four lanes feel like the same sprawling space. That, in turn, means the streets need truly massive buildings to avoid feeling like a highway or a suburban stroad.
Ultimately, the point is that trees and good design can help solve the width problems seen on Utah streets. We have some good examples of success out there, but the vast majority of our streets still suffer height-to-width ratios that reduce their appeal.