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Alan’s thoughts before traveling to Budapest, Venice and Vienna

May 19, 2009

WHAT MAKES A STREET GREAT?

We often talk about having great streets as part of our city fabric in North America, but when asked what makes a great street, it is very difficult to put into words.

We often say that there should be good activities on it, there should be eyes on the street, it should be 24 hours, it should be pedestrian oriented, room for all modes of transit, etc

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE MATHEMATICS?

But the difficulty is is that we can talk about it poetically, but little is known about the mathematics.
• What width should a sidewalk be?
• Does a great street work with parking on both sides?
• How wide should the moving lane be?
• Do you need substantial street trees?
• What are the specific characteristics of shops and restaurants that animate a street?
• What is the role of sunlight and air movement?
At this point in time, in our practice, a lot of the answers are generic and not specific. Many of the images that we show as examples illustrate the poetic aspects without much detail of the specifics of some of the above considerations.

BUDAPEST + VENICE + VIENNA

The intent of my trip to Budapest, Venice, and Vienna is to understand what makes a great street. One of the basic premises of our practice is that a great street is a great place to walk or to hang out. These three cities have different characteristics that may shed some light on the relationship between people walking and the presence of the automobile.

History
All three cities were seen to be great cities to walk in the era of the promenade (the late 19th century) before the advent of the automobile. Budapest and Vienna were both affluent capitals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Venice was one of the great destinations for tourists of the day.

The reason why I’ve chosen these three cities is because the introduction of the automobile affected them in very different ways. Venice, because of its particular physical constraints (canals), has limited automobile traffic that affects the walking environment. Therefore, Venice represents the one extreme of what it’s like to walk without having to share the streets with automobiles.

Vienna, in the late 19th century, created ring roads that focused the circulation of vehicular traffic. With the advent of the automobile, it tended to create a logical, organized method of moving automobiles. In the later 20th, Vienna fought back and claimed many of their key downtown streets as pedestrian.

Budapest shared with Vienna, many of the same origins of great urban fabric; the public squares and parks, the grand streets, the ring roads and the impressive civic buildings. Somehow, somewhere with the introduction of the automobile has had a greater impact on Budapest than Vienna in terms of eroding the pedestrian realm. From what I observed on my visit in 1992, Budapest, during the time it was a part of the Eastern Bloc, did not give the same priority to creating and maintaining an attractive public realm as Vienna did over the same period. I am looking forward to seeing what progress has occurred in the last sixteen years.

In 1992, I visited both Vienna and Budapest. Though both cities are incredibly beautiful, human scale cities, I was struck by the differences in the impact of the automobile. On this trip, I want to be able to be more specific in my observations and understand the relationship between what makes a comfortable street to walk and what makes it uncomfortable. I intend to observe Venice as a non-automobile counterpoint.