Wide streets are a dominant feature of the modern built environment.
Pondering upon a street’s width is not a common pastime. But if you live in a place (either in the US or abroad) with narrower streets you may wonder "What’s going on with all these wide streets?"
So let’s explore how our streets came to be so wide. We’ll briefly address three preliminary matters:
Why does street width matter?
Wide streets have frequently overlooked drawbacks. They:
1. Are expensive to construct, maintain, and repair
2. Reduce available land for all other purposes, including housing (which becomes more expensive)
3. Encourage/necessitate driving, and all its accompanying problems, by pushing destinations further apart
4. Encourage vehicular speeding by creating a visually open environment
5. Degrade the built environment’s character by perpetuating asphalt landscapes and preventing the creation of human-scaled spaces
What is the definition of a wide street?
It depends on who you ask. My definition is any street wider than 34 feet. Traditional town/city streets are often in 8-20 feet wide. In modern cities, if we allocate 7 feet widths to parking and 10 feet widths to traffic lanes (both are considered standard but modest widths), that comes to 34 feet for a bi-directional street..
A hopeful message about wide streets
There’s vast potential for taking the land that wide streets occupy and doing marvelous things with it. See other Plaza Perspective articles on this subject here, here, and here.
On with the history of wide streets…
Salt Lake City, circa 1890.
Springfield, Massachusetts, circa 1905.
As we can see from the above, many wide American streets pre-date the automobile. So why were pre-auto American city streets, as well as suburban and post-auto city streets, so wide?
The answer starts in medieval Europe:
1. Horse-drawn carriages became popular in 15th century Europe
In the 15th century, the horse-drawn carriage became popular in Europe. This was the beginning of the age (which we’re still in) of the personal vehicle, producing the first calls for straight, wide roads.
2. Wide streets were used in 18/19th century Europe to aid imperialist ambitions
Avenue de l’Opera, Paris, designed by Georges-Eugene Haussmann. Painting by Camille Pissarro (1898).
The modern nation state arose in the 18th and 19th century. This was accompanied with a push for grand imperial cities that would communicate centralized governments’ power to the world. Designs centered around large scale, order, and uniformity. Hallmarks of this approach included long wide boulevards, grand parks and gardens, and radial road networks.
One of the most famous initiatives was Georges-Eugene Haussmann’s renovation of Paris (1853-1927). His project leveled medieval parts of Paris and replaced them with broad avenues, squares, and parks. Washington DC’s plan, created in 1791 by French architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant, was designed with similar goals. DC was to be the center of an empire stretching from coast to coast and its design was to reflect this future glory.
Meanwhile, other US cities with prominent agricultural industries, such as Salt Lake City, Utah, and Livermore, California, created wide streets to allow horse/oxen-drawn wagons to turn around.
3. Wide streets were used to combat squalor and disease
Early industrial European towns and cities were overcrowded, polluted, and unsanitary. Experts decried the conditions. Their suggestions were to reinvigorate slums with light, "good air" ("bad air" was said to spread disease), and reduced crowding. This led to large projects across Europe to demolish slums and widen streets.
The above two sections can explain the wide streets in pre-automobile American cities. However, the wide streets of American suburbia and in automobile era cities have a different, but related, set of causes…
4. Suburbs were invented in England
England’s wealthy families of the late 18th and early 19th centuries escaped the industrial city’s horrors by moving to its rural edge. Suburbia was invented here. John Nash’s plan for Park Village (1823) pioneered this new type of town. Nash’s plan called for houses set in a picturesque landscape – the bucolic qualities of the countryside with the convenience of the city.
5. Wide streets were imported from England to the US
American planners visited England in the 1850s. They brought back its suburban ideas. These ideas took root in the US with the first American suburbs in New Jersey. In the early 20th century, planners turned these ideas into uniform standards to be applied to a whole new town at once. The 1928 plan for Radburn, New Jersey, was an early example of this.
However, both Park Village and Radburn’s streets were relatively narrow compared to later American suburbs. The true culprit of wide streets was to come.
6. Nationwide standards for streets were created
In the 20th century, three major developments combined to make wide streets the dominant standard across the US.
Firstly, experts and scientific reasoning, rather than tradition, became the go-to source for recommendations on street widths. This produced the use of standards – applying practices uniformly across different situations.
Secondly, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was created in 1934 to make low-risk loans for subdivision (ie. suburban) and housing construction. To provide loans, the FHA advocated for planners to adopt standards that included wide streets.
Thirdly, the construction industry formed the Urban Land Institute (ULI) in 1939 to push for standards similar to the FHA’s. This made large scale construction easier and cheaper. To this day, ULI publications have been influential in setting standards.
7. Street engineers prioritized streets for traffic flow
Reacting to rapidly growing automobile ownership, the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) was formed in 1930. The ITE helped institutionalize the view that streets are for automobiles. To enable free-flowing traffic, streets needed to be wide.
Now you know why we have so many wide streets
Now we have a broad understanding of the history of wide streets. In future posts, we’ll explore how wide streets can be improved and transformed into places that people love.
Note: For a more detailed account of this story I recommend the book Streets and the Shaping of Towns and Cities (Island Press, 2003) by Michael Southworth and Eran Ben-Joseph. Thank you to Michael for his advice in writing this article.