What makes a beautiful street?

/ Tuesday, May 1, 2012 /

What makes a street pretty or inviting? Threatening or tumultuous? Is it the captivating architecture or the clever use of green space? The site lines or the width of the sidewalks? Recently, OpenPlans.org asked the same question and on Valentines Day opened a project that would begin gathering data on what defines a beautiful street.

A screen capture of the Beautiful Street Project.

In a Hot or Not type inquiry, using two windows linked directly to Google Street View, you can decide which streets are better looking. Itemizing what makes one street more aesthetically pleasing than another will take some months of collecting data, but it's a really interesting question and an important one when planning and redeveloping cities, such as revitalizing the Queen City's downtown.

Out of curiosity, I recently picked three side streets off of Elm Street in Manchester and asked the same question, what makes these streets beautiful or plain? I chose Lowell, Amherst and Hanover and noted some of the details. I found myself less concerned with the quaint nature of the Palace Theatre's wonderful entrance but the weird, formless gaps in the other two streets.

Hanover Street, looking north at the Opera Block by Manchester Oblique.

Hanover Street, known as the "opera block" between Chestnut and Elm, is a great primer for any city planner. It is a somewhat ubiquitous opinion that Hanover Street is the most beautiful street in Manchester and is the one street that gives people the feeling that they are in a larger city than they really are. This effect can be best experienced walking westward on Hanover towards Elm Street. The combination of the Citizen's Bank building, on the corner of Elm and Hanover, and City Hall Plaza, sitting across the street, really help to define Hanover's space and gives you the sense that you're walking into a busy downtown. The definition of space is the foundation of creating a beautiful street and Hanover continues doing that by keeping the gaps between buildings to a minimum.

In Jane Jacobs' "The Death and Life of Great American Cities", the author makes the argument that circulation, the ability to draw pedestrians from one area of a city to another, is the most important mechanic in city planning and development. While the Opera Block only spans a mere quarter mile, it draws people up and down its sidewalks all day long and into the night with a mix of business and entertainment establishments, with living space to boot. The majority of storefronts on Hanover are under the same roof of one long, brick building creating a more uniform aesthetic and commercial experience.

A look at the consistent storefronts along Hanover Street by Manchester Oblique.

Vines slowly scaling the wall of Hanover Street pakring garage by Manchester Oblique.

The Opera Block's archway leading to a parking lot behind the building. A nice device in preserving access yet avoiding a potential alleyway. In the background sits the New Hampshire 9th Circuit Courthouse on the neighboring Amherst Street. By Manchester Oblique.

From there you can pick some of the more obvious details like the trees that line the wide sidewalks and the decorative lighting around the branches, making for a more whimsical night look. Even the parking garage behind the Citizen's Bank building is unobtrusive, camouflaged with vinery and darker cement.

In contrast, Amherst and Lowell Streets are both fine streets that have flourishing businesses but somehow lack the magical look of Hanover Street.

Amherst Street's entrance from Elm Street is narrow, including its sidewalks, and not as well lit at night giving the space a sense of unease rather than an inviting nightspot. Granted the latter half of the block between Elm and Chestnut are dominated by a courthouse and a parking garage, but there are jarring gaps between many of the buildings that make it feel like you're on the backside of downtown as opposed to walking down one of its lively side streets. If you're walking along the northern sidewalk and round the corner of Consuelo's Taqueria, you're faced with a strange, overly large, and often empty, side street that grants access to a parking garage. From there, you're forced to cross to the next sidewalk at an odd angel as Amherst Street actually widens to allow parking on both sides of the street. It sounds knit-picky but it makes for a dissonant pedestrian experience and give the street an asymmetrical quality.

The entrance to Amherst Street via Elm Street by Manchester Oblique.

While the 9th Circuit courthouse (the old Union Leader building) isn't without its historic charm, it's facade lacks a grand entrance facing the street and instead opts for a side entrance that catty-corners a tiny parking lock that creates a weird gap between the courthouse and the current nightclub next door, exposing the backside of Hanover Street. Lastly, on the south side of the parking garage facing Amherst Street, there is a ditch between the sidewalk and the parking structure to accommodate the sunken level in the garage. It's a kind of negative space left by the garage's construction and tends to be a reservoir for rubbish and weeds (cryptoforestry?).

A picture of the aforementioned ditch on the south side of the Vine Street parking garage. The tinted rectangles have been added to emphasize the space. By Manchester Oblique.

The gap standing between the NH 9th Circuit Courthouse and the current nightclub next door on Amherst Street by Manchester Oblique.

Lowell Street fairs better with few more accessible business facades (especially those in the Gauchos building), better lighting, two interesting looking apartment buildings, slightly wider sidewalks and greenery that defines the space a little better. But the street is also riddled with large gaps for parking lots. At one point before the Red Arrow, the planter of the adjacent parking lot protrudes into pedestrian space forcing the sidewalk to jut out into the street. If anything, Lowell Street harbors a lot of potential for development if the parking lots were to be sacrificed.

A picture of the interrupted walking path on Lowell Street by Manchester Oblique.

A picture of the 62 Lowell Street building that houses several businesses and updates the look of an older, classy look with simple, modern awnings by Manchester Oblique.

The entrance to Lowell Street via Elm Street by Manchester Oblique.

A picture of the Wellington Trade Center parking lot that spans the space between the Red Arrow and Wellington Trade Center Building.

This is, of course, a completely subjective analysis of these streets, but it is important to note the conscious and often times unconscious sensations flowing through our minds and bodies when moving through an urban environment. There are subtle borders, barriers, pathways, symbols and marginal spaces that help guide us through the city everyday. They're often convoluted and stacked on top of each other through years of building and rebuilding. Think about how often you might walk around a city park instead of cutting through its grassy meadows or why the Millyard feels so disconnected from downtown. What makes a street a "shortcut" as opposed to a "main drag"? A bypass instead of a destination?

What makes a street beautiful to you? Please, leave your thoughts in the comments.


Anonymous on: May 4, 2012 at 2:14 PM said...

This is a great post. Considering how universally people seem to enjoy Hanover St, I'm surprised there haven't been more people trying to expand its charm to other side streets downtown.

The public and private investments on downtown streets, including the nice sidewalks, lights and arches in the photos, are great, but downtown remains essentially a two-street area: Elm and Hanover, with some very worthwhile shops, restaurants and attractions scattered on the others.

In some ways, Manchester's grid system means the city loses out on the squares and other interesting public spaces found in unplanned cities in New England. But one thing I love--and one of the most successful parts of the grid--is that all these side streets end at Elm, so there's some visible destination or sense of enclosure at the end. Obviously, the way Hanover frames City Hall is unbeatable, but the other side streets feel more intimate than Elm, which extends out of eyesight in each direction. These could all be interesting areas with their own, slightly different vibe.

They definitely need some of the gaps filled in that you pointed out. But maybe an easier first step would be to change the uses of some of those buildings. I'm not sure how the city or community can encourage this exactly, but stuff like the CVS occupying what was clearly once a beautiful building on the corner of Elm & Amherst could certainly be improved. Then, there's the hulking Verizon building on Amherst & Vine, which seems like it's just full of equipment.

I'd actually love to see the city encourage the development of a Hanover-like feel along some of the boardinghouse streets across Elm--Market St is almost directly across Elm from Hanover and already has a bit of life, and will end at apartments in Tower Mill soon. Re-zoning that area to allow shops and restaurants at the ground-floor would create an intimate area similar to Hanover, with the added benefit of leading down toward the Millyard and the river.

On a side note, I saw that the mayor has proposed closing Hanover St to auto traffic on Friday nights during the summer. That could the block into a really cool area.

{ Peter Dobratz } on: February 1, 2013 at 7:30 AM said...

Have you heard of the OpenStreetMap project? It's a crowd-sourced map of the world that anyone can contribute to. Many areas of Manchester still need to be filled in with details about parks/restaurants/walking paths/etc.

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