Our Grid of Streets, Blocks, and Buildings, And at Last, No Cars….

First, a Prologue. We here at A Town Square are in a CDC quarantine: we had spent time in the wonderful cities of Madrid and Valencia, left at the last possible moment as the Spanish nation locked itself down, and arrived in the US to be told that we would be spending a couple of weeks at home. We are fine, but recent directives suggest that our stay at home may be lengthened….

But all of this has not stopped us from thinking about a future city, one that can withstand environmental change, a city that offers us a better, more resilient, healthier and more humane future. And so we continue our thinking and exploring, here below.

We note that many urbanists are wondering about what the pandemic means for cities. A good few words on the subject could be these from the New York Time’s Michael Kimmelman, who wrote this:


Urban life may change now due to the medical emergency of this time. But cities will continue to offer us all a best life, and now perhaps a better life as we learn how to stay healthy and close and support and help one another in a challenging moment. Read on, Macduff.

I find myself unable to cease imagining our physical city – our blocks, our streets, our buildings – after our cars become unnecessary and we share a ride, by one means or another, in our urban places. In my last dispatch here I covered some of these issues – for better or worse – but not surprisingly I ran aground of our own local circumstances – the Rochester block.

As a first step, and in case you think that I am hallucinating, take a look at this:

Autonomous transit las vegas navya

This is an autonomous transit vehicle that is on the cusp of production by a French company called NAVYA, headquartered in Lyon. They are not kidding – this is ready to “roll.” This particular version has been designed for Las Vegas. My thanks to my colleague RB for the information.

So: let’s return to the matter at hand – our blocks. As I noted previously, the Rochester block is +/- 270′ deep, and nearly infinitely long – half a mile in some places in our city. In my last epistle, I reflected on how to cut the block into better chunks, and I spent some time reflecting on the various things we could consider in our “City of Homes,” as it was once called, once we had made room for life after automobility.

All good. But I found myself wondering what our street would become if the only presence was pods as above, bikers, and walkers. If my readers were to go back to this very blog on March 1st of 2009 – hah! – you would discover that once before I considered building things in the middle of streets. Such heresy!

Maryland and D NE final

Maryland Avenue on Capital Hill, Washington.

And I took major static for this earlier suggestion. The general assessment was that I had slipped a cog. “Poor Howard – we can wheel him away now.” Well, more than ten years later, maybe I was on to something. Maybe filling in the streets but for a lane or two here and there wasn’t quite the crazy idea it seemed at the moment. Let’s keep at it.

I have no proprietary interest in which vehicle supplants automobiles. What I am particularly interested in, though, is the fact that these vehicles are almost all small, and need less roadway to move and no roadway to park. In or out and the vehicle is gone.

The vehicle I showed you above – the Navya vehicle – is autonomous, and is already in use in the US. Here is a view of the vehicle at the University of Michigan.

Brochure_Shuttle_EN (2)

This vehicle has a width of 2.11 meters: about seven feet. I mention this issue of width because of this:

2020-03-18_180841 (2)

On our street, we have a 50 foot right of way that includes something like 26 feet of paving. But with a small autonomous vehicle and a width of seven feet, and given reasonable additional clearances, we can reduced the paved area of the street to 20 feet or less. Good.

And on our block, the buildings all align with one another to create front yards of 30 feet or so.  All of this dimensional talk will be resolved shortly – stay with me here.

As noted in the previous post, we have made each street shared space – a term of science these days – we have cut down block lengths to enhance accessibility, walkability and permeability, and we have converted all of our garages to all kinds of clever spaces – studios, offices, alternative dwelling units (ADUs), and even bars and shops. Now it’s time for another big adjustment. Now I am going to propose a fundamental shift in the character of the street side of the public realm. I propose that we now can make every city street into a walkable destination for the local neighbors by allowing (not requiring, but allowing) construction in front yards up to and against the street. Like this, in Park Slope, Brooklyn, but without the brownstones.


Not every lot, not a continuous line of additions, but allowable on lots like this:

scan154216561 (2)

Crazy, right? As life-long preservationists, we acknowledge that a few  rules would be required. You can’t muck up historic structures with anything that isn’t easily reversible. You can’t make these kind of additions to buildings that are National Historic Landmarks. Not many rules, but a few.

Having said that, we can certainly imagine a house like this:


Enjoying an addition like this:


In  my next installment, I am going to show you much more about this proposal: more about how it would work, how it would look, what it could offer the life and vitality of the street, how it would assure an easily walkable local district.

More to come.





4 thoughts on “Our Grid of Streets, Blocks, and Buildings, And at Last, No Cars….

  1. Thanks! I now look back on the last two posts about how our city and our neighborhoods are arranged and could be arranged with a new perspective. After the virus, it will be interesting to see how our newfound openness and community camaraderie transfers to our physical living arrangements, if at all.Perhaps it will just be a zoom back to the earlier way of living. Perhaps not.


  2. Back to the future! There are many examples around Rochester of commercial storefronts attached to the fronts of formerly residential structures. There are several along Park Ave. The last one I remember being built was Aladdin’s on Monroe Ave, probably back in the 80’s. How many more could we get with more relaxed zoning? Hard to say. Unfortunately we still seem to be stuck with many property owners who would rather demo buildings for parking than to find ways to “thicken up” our city.

  3. Tim, I have seen these front yard places everywhere (multiples on Park Avenue, as you note),and there are a bunch. But 40+ years forward, I am going to continue to advocate for these, and for anything you’d like in the backyard too. As you will see in the next post, beyond a limit of 400 or 500 square feet as a footprint, all other limits, especially of use, disappear. If we can now reclaim the streets because all the cars are replaced with something else transport-wise, and if local sources of all kinds of things are implemented because walking takes command, then what we know as the public realm truly becomes where we can live our lives in our neighborhoods. More to come. Thanks for being here.

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