Great streets are a rare commodity today. Since the 1950s, good street design has been trumped by the ever-growing demands of the automobile. Once the center of public life, engineers and planners have systematically reduced streets to the equivalent of "asphalt sewers" that unceremoniously carry their load of traffic to points unknown, as quickly as possible. These crude expanses of modern pavement discard the basic principles of street design that date back to ancient civilization, and are key to defining "community".

Contrast this recent mentality with the grace of streets and towns built as recently as the early 20th century, where city planners balanced the growing number of automobiles with other community goals and modes of travel. Community leaders built the most elegant homes on major streets, where the mix of streetcars, automobiles and pedestrians was the pulse of civic activity, making these streets "the place to be seen." Businesses faced these streets, too, and spread their wares onto the sidewalks, blurring the line between commerce and community in a way that enhanced both.

But by the mid-1950s, new streets built in America made no attempt to accommodate anything but auto traffic, eliminating even the most rudimentary sidewalks, and relegating pedestrians to an often dangerous walk on a gravel shoulder or mad dash through traffic to simply cross the street. It is no wonder that alienated citizens demanded sound walls and other barriers to screen their neighborhoods from these badly designed streets. Sadly, such "mitigation" devices only serve to further isolate communities from their own streets.

In the past two decades, a grass-roots revolt against these auto-only designs has emerged. Citizens, city planners, civil engineers and public officials are increasingly shouting "no!" to bad designs that devastate communities and serve only cars. This movement is rooted in a growing interest in building traditional communities as an alternative to the 1950s, auto-dependent subdivisions that now dominate new developments.

While you may see terms like new urbanism, smart growth and context sensitive design, the common thread is simple: a new respect for local communties amd traditions in how streets are planned, built and maintained. Streets are central to building these new, "traditional" communities because of the critical role they play in creating a unique community identity, healthy business environment and public space for citizens to use and enjoy.

The following pages of Great Streets! celebrate this renewed interest in street design: they are divided into the following three sections:

The Main Street Profiles section is a hall of fame for a broad cross-section of communities that have taken their main streets back from the highway or county road department officials, and returned to a design emphasis on community, not speeding traffic. Most of the profiles chronicle recent projects, where greatness is being restored by average citizens and local governments along traditional main streets. Most featue simple, inexpensive solutions that could be used in any main street project.
The Elements of Design pages illustrate some of the basic ingredients that can make ordinary streets GREAT, and are now being rediscovered in communities across the country. Here, you can learn about simple street design details that can be used in any town or district, and few ideas that should be avoided in your main street project. Think of this section as a categorized scrapbook of images that you can mix and match to promote a project in your community.
On a more whimsical note, the Right here in... River City? pages are both a tribute to The Music Man, and the terrific examples of town planning and urban design that were built for the screen version of the play in 1962. Playwright Meredith Willson and director Morton DaCosta spared no expense or detail in recreating turn of the century Mason City Iowa on the movie set - Willson's home town, and the "real" River City. It's fun and informative to examine the simple details of River City that are still crucial elements of a successful town or main street today.
The purpose of this site is to provide useful images for local advocates of good design who want to make a difference in their community. The images are copyrighted, but may be used for non-profit, non-commercial purposes in community slide presentations, workshops or displays with photo credit provided to "greatstreets.org". Please contact the webmaster for use in printed publications.


Elements of Design < Main Street Profiles < Right Here in... River City?

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