If you’re like me, traveling to Europe is basically a never ending visual feast. But in Edinburgh earlier this summer, I saw what seemed like a bizarre combination of European architecture with a Utah-esque street:
This street has a lot going for it. The buildings are interesting and have good street engagement, and the street terminates at an awesome church.
But it’s also much wider than most streets I’ve seen in Europe. Much like a street in Utah, this one includes parking in the center, two lanes of traffic, and enough space for additional curbside parking.
And as you can see, there’s almost no one on this street. Despite the beautiful old buildings all around, this is basically a car-centric expanse that’s noisy and unpleasant to experience. I walked the entire length of the street and, perhaps worst of all, it was boring.
By contrast, just a few blocks away, pedestrians flocked to this street:
There are three big differences between these two streets. First, the street in the second picture had more retail and restaurants, which certainly makes a difference. However, retail naturally gravitates to places people enjoy (or it goes out of business), so more retail on the second street suggests it has better design. (I’m ignoring zoning for the sake of brevity here, though I realize that could be factor.)
Second, one of the streets is pedestrian-only, the other is not. However pedestrian malls only work if there is demand for them — or in other words, if people are already using the street — so pedestrianizing an empty, underused street like the one in the first picture likely wouldn’t have much impact.
And finally third, the height to width ratio is completely different on these two streets. In the second picture, the tall buildings and narrow street create something like 2:1 or 3:1. In the first picture, that ratio is reversed.
I think that’s the most important difference. Indeed, the architecture on the first street is actually more stereotypically beautiful while the second street intersperses old buildings with relatively boring modern ones.*
So what is the lesson here? I think it’s that people and the businesses they support naturally gravitate to streets with tall buildings and narrow streets.
The surprising thing is that the actual appearance of the buildings on these streets seemed to have almost no impact on how many people were using these streets. In the end, the narrow street with the tall buildings was where everyone wanted to be. The car-oriented wide street was basically abandoned.
* I suspect someone is going to read this and say that the first street’s architectural monotony contributes to its failure. My counter argument would be to look at Paris, which has row after row of similar buildings but still fairly lively street life. Indeed, the first street is basically a Parisian boulevard with the top half of the buildings cut off (and the trees ripped out). In other words, Paris’ success in comparison to this Edinburgh street again suggests that building heights are more important than architecture.
Granary Row does a lot of amazing things — including generally showing the potential of wide streets — but among the most significant victories is solving the height-to-width problems of Salt Lake Cities streets.
In case you haven’t visited it yet, Granary Row is a kind of pedestrian mall/urban park/retail village built out of shipping containers in the middle of a very wide street. It’s the kind of thing often referred to as “pop up” urbanism because it’s temporary, inexpensive and fast to built.
And of course, this week I’ve been writing about how buildings should be at least as tall as their street is wide to create the sense of enclosure that people tend to find inviting.
Here’s what Granary Row looked like earlier this summer:
As you can see, Granary Row was built on a very wide street. I haven’t measured this area, but I’d guess it’s in the range of at least a 1:6 height-to-width ratio, which is a disaster.
However, Granary Row broke up that space, showing that it’s possible to take those disconcertingly wide expanses and realign them, effectively creating a series of small squares:
As I hope these pictures show, Granary row is made up of a series of distinct little spaces. Height-to-width ratios vary, but they’re all in the 1:3 to 1:2 range, which is a huge improvement over the wide street that existed before.
Most importantly, Granary Row changes they was pedestrians perceive the space. Previously, it was just a long expanse running east to west:
In the picture above, the red arrows show how this space worked before Granary Row arrived. It was a continuous, non-human-scale place that was more than a little bit awful to experience. Like much of the Granary District, the expansiveness of the space and streets overwhelmed whatever cool, post-industrial grittiness the buildings should have created. In many ways, it felt like a neighborhood-sized parking lot.
But Granary Row used that expanse to create a bunch of little spaces with north-south orientations:
The spaces created by Granary row, represented by the green arrows in the picture above, feel inviting and comfortable in comparison to the old street. Clearly, they are more “human scale.”
That happens, I think, because among other things the height-to-width ratios are pretty good on Granary Row. Whoever designed it knew just how far apart to place the shipping containers to create areas that were accessible but visually distinct from their surroundings. Significantly, containers also were stacked, turned on end and otherwise aligned to create much-needed visual barriers with a pleasant balance of height and width.
Granary Row does so many things well that I’ll definitely be blogging about it in the future. But more than anything else, it shows that good spaces don’t happen on accident. They’re carefully and intentionally designed. And thankfully, as Granary Row as shows, they also can “pop up” without radically redesigning cities or chasing big investment money.
As I’ve been arguing this week, getting the ratio of building heights to street widths right is important for creating livable, interesting spaces. Utah is particularly plagued by vague, inhospitable spaces because its wide streets make it very difficult to create a sense of enclosure.
One solution is to add more streets, and to make those new streets narrow.
As a result of the Mormon grid, Utah cities have massive blocks with infrequent streets. But what makes Utah cities feel particularly oppressive is that nearly all of the streets are massive. Other cities have their major thoroughfares of course, but every single street isn’t 100 feet wide.
Though it would be nice to see some effort to narrow more Utah streets — which would save everyone money — we could also simply add smaller streets in the middle of our blocks. (Many people already support this idea.)
More streets would give pedestrians alternatives to the busy main routes, and these streets would need much smaller buildings to have comfortable, urban height-to-width ratios.
Case in point, the La France apartments on Broadway in Salt Lake City:
Behind the larger three-story buildings (just visible in the foreground), this street is lined with one story dwellings. They’re small, but significantly, they fit the street; this is at least a 1:1 height-to-width ratio. It may even be closer to 1.5:1 because the buildings actually look taller than the street is wide to me. It’s interesting and intimate and I suspect just about everyone would rather sit or walk here than along the many freeway-esque stroads just around the corner.
In other words, this is a fantastic spot that epitomizes how varying street widths dictate how tall surrounding buildings should be. In the end, what amounts to “human scale” varies from location to location.
Streets and the buildings that line them interact, but some interact better than others. Why? Because of the relationship between building height and street width, among other things.
This is a simple idea generally referred to as the “height to width” ratio.
So, if you have a 50 foot wide street lined by buildings that are about 50 feet tall, that’s a 1:1 ratio. But if the the buildings are only 25 feet tall, that’s a 1:2 ratio, because the street is twice as wide as the buildings are tall. There are numerous images on the internet that illustrate this idea, but here’s a good, succinct PDF that sums it up nicely.
So why does this matter?
Generally, getting these ratios right is thought to be a key to creating a strong sense of place. In urban areas, many people like to see at least 1:1 ratios. I’ve found that the places I like the most — Boston, Venice, Paris, villages in the Cinqua Terra, etc. — tend to have even higher ratios, with buildings much taller than the streets are wide.
This makes sense for a lot of reasons, which is probably why people have been building tall(ish) structures along narrow streets for millennia. Economically, for example, it saves on infrastructure costs when you have more people clustered along small streets.
But height to width ratios are also about the feel of a city. As Great Streets San Diego points out in this nice summary, the idea is that they give a necessary sense of enclosure to a street:
A Street requires the same good proportions as any room to make it feel good. It is the “walls” of the street that are key to creating good proportions and a sense of place. The buildings on either side of the street form the walls of the street “room”, and as such are called the “Street Wall”.
That paper goes on to argue that 3:2 and 1:1 ratios create a strong sense of place, while 1:3 ratios and lower offer “no sense of place to the street.” Unsurprisingly, those are the ratios seen in suburban areas.
These ideas are not uncontested, but I think the best argument in their favor comes from the streets themselves. Would you rather walk along a rowhouse street in Boston, or a street lined with strip malls in LA? Would you rather walking along a boulevard in Paris, or University Blvd. in Orem?
And if you think I’m just a biased city-lover, visit Disneyland and walk along Main Street; if my recollection is correct, the ratio there is about 1:1.5 or so. Main Street is an imitation of course, but its designers chose to use that form because it works and because people like it.
In other parts of Disneyland, such as near the Blue Bayou restaurant, ratios are closer to 2:1, which is quite urban. The result is that even though millions of tourist wander through those alleys, they still convey a sense of excitement and discovery.
My point is not that I like Disneyland — I don’t, actually — but just that successful places of all sorts display the same general height to width ratios.
Malls also use this idea; the ratios inside usually range from between 1:1 or 1:1.5 (University Mall in Orem) to 2:1 (City Creek mall in Salt Lake).
Finally, this idea is particularly important for Utah. As everyone knows, most cities in Utah have extremely wide streets, which were a feature of the Mormon grid. But what everyone may not realize is that if the streets get wider, the buildings have to get taller to produce the same effect.
So, in Portland, where streets tend to only be 50 or 60 feet wide, a five or six story building creates a comfortable 1:1 ratio. That gives Portland an exciting and engaging feel without it having to include many massive buildings. The skyline of Portland is even fairly unimpressive, but walking the streets is a pleasure.
But in Salt Lake City, where streets are in some cases twice as wide, buildings have to be closer to 100 feet tall to produce the same effect.
This is a huge problem for Utah cities, and one that is perhaps poorly understood. Tall buildings get more and more expensive the higher they go, for example, and more generally if streets feel inhospitable or lack a sense of enclosure people will avoid them.
The result is that even if Salt Lake managed to become as built up as Portland — something that won’t happen any time soon — it’d still feel much smaller because the height to width ratios would be completely different and more suburban. In fact, you could drop the exact same buildings from any major city onto a Utah street grid and the wider streets would radically alter, and diminish I think, the feel of the environment. (That’s true of any street grid of course — drop Seattle onto New York, Boston onto San Francisco, etc. and they all change — but Utah’s wide streets are an extreme case.)
There are ways to solve, or at least mitigate, this problem, which I’ll discuss in future posts this week. But for now, suffice it to say that this is indeed a problem. If we want our cities along the Wasatch Front to feel inviting and hospitable, we have to think about ratios. In the end, experiencing our cities should feel unique but it shouldn’t feel inferior.