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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Does St. Louis need more corners?

I live in New Orleans.

If you thought St. Louis had an iron street grid, come to this city. We are talking endless rows of neat squares--not rectangles--throughout most of the 19th Century and early 20th Century city.

In comparison, St. Louis has superblocks. When I was back in town a few weeks ago, I drove through some North Side neighborhoods that troubled me for reasons other than their relative decay. The blocks are far, far too long in many parts of the city, I noticed.

What are the advantages of the short block? Late urban planning guru (inventor?) Jane Jacobs sums it up best.
  • Short blocks provide more corners. More corners means, or can mean, more opportunities for retail and mixed-use structures. More activity on corners means more eyes on the street. More eyes on the street means a safer and more vibrant community--with services (a dentist? a small grocer? you name it) right down the block!
  • Short blocks are less forbidding to the pedestrian or cyclist. When you live on a looooong block, you're much less likely to desire to disembark from your house and make the trek down the same block every day. We're humans. We like things that are visually, aurually, olfactorily(?) interesting and exciting. Yes, many of us prefer routine as well. But that's the beauty of the short block. Your commute to, say, the commercial main street two blocks away from your shorter block, means: 1) you will pass more corners, which may divert your trip and 2) you have choices in your journey! Shorter blocks means you can take any number of rational routes to get to your destination. With large blocks, we feel entrapped and restricted. The best way to deal with entrapment, it seems, has been the presence of an escape pod--an automobile.

I come to you not without visual aids.

Take a look at Kingsway West, a neighborhood about as far out from the original core as New Orleans' Uptown (Kingsway is actually a bit closer to its respective downtown!).

Kingsway West:

and Uptown New Orleans:

Absolutely NO cross streets between Kingshighway and Union? That's too long, especially since we're talking a series of blocks. Let's measure.

Walking west on Northland Ave. from Kingshighway to Union: 0.36 miles.

Walking west on Loyola from Napoleon to Jena in Uptown New Orleans: 0.06 miles.

That means, out of this one sample block, both of which are representative of their immediate surroundings, St. Louis's block is 6 times longer--6 New Orleans blocks!

When my mother came down to visit, she was forced to walk a lot. She would often ask me how far our destination was, since traveling on foot is not her preferred transit system. I found myself saying "2 St. Louis blocks" when it was 4 or more New Orleans ones.

Only Soulard seems to have blocks close to New Orleans' size--which makes sense. It was laid out by a French Creole.

Now, this is not the largest problem you can have. And there are very stable South Side blocks that are extremely long. Check out all of the Southampton neighborhood's residential streets for examples.

But the North Side got me thinking. Why not take advantage of vacant lots and create new through streets? It would help redensify the neighborhoods, add some commercial or office space, and make the North Side more pedestrian friendly in the process.

St. Louis, in my opinion, needs shorter blocks wherever it can get them. Ballpark Village, Pruitt Igoe site, the N. 22nd St. Urban Prairie--listen up! No superblocks!


Lolololori said...

Dude, I am LOVING your St. Louis-New Orleans comparisons. Didn't STL originally have the same streetplan (like, Laclede or Chouteau set it down?) as NOLA?

Keep it comin'.

Also, if you get inspired, I'd be interested to know your take on how Memphis fits into it all. REALLY looking forward to that post, whenever it may be. :)

Matt M. said...

I am always open to requests. More comparison posts will follow, and I shall toss Memphis into the mix.

Anonymous said...

nice post...
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