Creating the Streets We Want

Rich street life is no frill. It is an expression of the most ancient function of a city—a place for people to come together, all kinds of people, face-to-face. — William "Holly" Whyte

Creating the Streets We Want

Inspiration from Gdansk, Buenos Aires, Paris and Istanbul

Rich street life is no frill. It is an expression of the most ancient function of a city—a place for people to come together, all kinds of people,  face-to-face. — William "Holly" Whyte

You know a great street when you see one, even if you can't explain why.  There's just something that lifts your sprits.  And you notice other people feel the same way—their posture is more upright, their step bouncier, their eyes more alert, their faces relaxed.

Gdansk: The Ulica Mariacka neighborhood in this Polish city shows how streets can feel like living rooms

The world's best streets feel like living rooms—a place primarily for people, not a conduit for cars. But great streets are not all alike—in fact, each has its own distinct identity shaped by the range of activities that draw people there. What they do share in common is one key quality—they allow people to easily connect on a number of levels: seeing and being seen, eye contact, a nod, a greeting, a conversation, a hug, an outright display of affection.

The promise of spontaneous encounters is what we want from streets, even if we think we're there just to run an errand or get a snack or take a walk. Those are usually excuses to be somewhere that makes us happy.

This photo gallery presents some of the finest streets in the world, focusing on Gdansk, Buenos Aires, Paris and Istanbul,  all of which offer lessons we can apply to city streets in our own communities.  

There's something fun to see, do, hear or eat on every block of La Defensa street in Buenos Aires
Istanbul: one of the world capitals of street life

Gdansk's Highly Sociable Street

Ulica Mariacka is one of the world's best and most engaging streets. The raised terraces in front of  buildings—once front porches of homes where merchants and goldsmiths lived— stimulate vital social interaction on three levels: the terrace, the street and the basement steps. It is a perfect setting  for outdoor dining, retail displays, stages for musicians to perform and a spot to watch people strolling past.

Buenos Aires's Bustling Heart  

Calle La Defensa is a memorable street any day—but especially Sunday when crowds gather to walk, shop, dance, eat and have fun interacting with the street performers.  Toward the south end of the street is Plaza Dorrego, with a market that includes antiques and locally made souvenirs.

In Buenos Aires's Palermo Neighborhood, Intersections Become Public Squares

This intersection in Buenos Aires' Palermo neighborhood (seen here from many angles) holds several lessons for making sure streets serve people on foot, not just motor vehicles.  The most most important step is expanding the sidewalk to stimulate more life on the corner, which also encourages motorists to drive more safely.  This extra space allows impromptu socializing and sidewalk cafes to flourish. The absence of stoplights and signs at intersections also helps slow down the traffic (as the Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman recommended).  Drivers must come to a stop, taking in all the activity on the street, before pulling into the intersection.  Entrances to corner buildings are canted at an angle, opening on to both streets at the same time, which adds to the town square feel  of the corner.  

Paris: Three Streets That Show the Wonder of Three Neighborhoods

Most Parisienne neighborhoods feature streets that function as both main streets and neighborhood squares. We highlight three of the most compelling: Rue de Buci, Rue Mouffetard and Rue Montorgueil, each of which illustrates the qualities that make a good street in any community.

Rue de Buci on the Left Bank

This block (immediately below) on Rue de Buci provides ample space for people to spontaneously meet, socialize and enjoy a memorable experience.  The curved design of the roadway allows access to both pedestrians and vehicles (although few motorists drive here because the number of people strolling slows them to a crawl).  A healthy mix of shops, cafes, hotels and other businesses make it a place people want to go.

Rue de Buci is the epitome of a pedestrian-friendly street

Rue Mouffetard near Luxembourg Gardens

This bustling street running downhill from the Pantheon proffers a cornucopia of produce stands, gourmet shops, markets and bistros—making it an appetizing destination.

Rue Montorgueil on the Right Bank

In what was once the Les Halles market district, this pedestrian-friendly street is still a favored spot for dining out or picking up provisions.

"Every walk is... a crusade"—Henry David Thoreau. Rue Montorgueil is so pedestrian-friendly that this older woman can walk the length 

The "River of Life" Flows through Historic Istanbul

William H. Whyte described streets as the "river of life", a phrase that vividly captures the spirit of sociability that infuses Turkey's largest city.  

Balik Pazari. Galatasaray Fish Market Mainly sells fish, but also meats, cheeses sweet meats and pickles. There are also restaurants on the side streets.

Istanbul's Grand Bazaar—One of the World's Oldest and Best Social Spaces

The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world with 61 covered streets and over 4000 shops.  There are five major gates (along with other streets) that connect the Grand Bazaar with other bazaars and areas that are all part of the district.  The shops in the market include textiles and carpets, countless jewelry shops, spices, souvenirs, cafes, fountains, historic artworks, a series of courtyards.  The rooftops of the Grand Bazaar have cafes, restaurants, toilets, banks, a post office, police station, and a mosque.

As the center of Istabul's commercial activity the social activity is amazing as well.

5 Key Takeaways from World-Class Streets

Here are some ingredients shared by many of the great streets in these four cities:

1) Narrow Roadways— The small streets have just one—or no—vehicle lanes.   Many streets have no curbs, which sends a message to pedestrians that the streets are theirs. Some use bollards as props or for leaning or to carrying on a conversation.

2) Storefronts—Inside out - Storefronts feature big windows or fully open fronts showing their wares, with merchandise/food displays often spilling out directly onto the sidewalk.

3) Mix of Uses—There is a variety of stores and businesses, which is key to the social success of a street, particularly ones open at different times (weekdays, weekends, seasonally) to ensure things are lively from morning to midnight.

4) Human-Scale—The buildings are generally two to six stories with  housing or offices upstairs.  Ground-floor cafes, markets, shops and other businesses that welcome the general public become an extension of the street life. When the base of a building has blank walls, it deadens the feel of an entire block.  Even windows without much to see, such as those found in many bank lobbies or pharmacies, can feel like visual blight.  

5) Distinctive Signs and Lighting—This helps highlight the unique identity of the neighborhood. Perpendicular signs of unique designs define a product or an experience.

The Enduring Appeal of Great Streets

All these examples show streets that have nourished social life for at least a century. Although the four cities evolved under very different circumstances, they are all defined by streets that serve as a gathering spot for people of all ages and cultures.

Kathy Madden experiencing what it was like to be sitting on a bench 100 years ago in Gdansk

The Street  

By John B. Keane

Here within a little street,

Is everything that is,

Of pomp and blessed poverty made sweet

And all that is of love

Of man and god above.

Of happiness and sorrow and conceit,

Of tragedy and death and bitter-sweet,

Of hope, despair, illusion and defeat

The mission of the Social Life Project is to incite a renaissance of community connection around the globe. It is an initiative of the Placemaking Fund, along with PlacemakingX — a global network of activists and community champions propelling the movement forward.