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A New Streetscape Can Create a Sense of Place

attractive streetscape including flower beds around trees

Streetscape, which usually is funded by the local government, homeowners association, subdivision, or business improvement district, often is an important element in the revitalization of a business or residential district.

Streetscape is just a catch-all term for anything and everything in the public realm along a street.

Technically the public realm could be anything between the edge of street or the curb, if there is one, to the private property line. Street trees, sidewalks, benches, landscaping, street lighting, and business district amenities all contribute to the streetscape.

After several experiences of planning, constructing, and watching the results of such a program, I think it's best to regard it as beautification. It's really the buildings and the businesses that count most.

However, if you need to set yourselves apart from another residential or business district, then you may want to investigate the cost and engineering feasibility of a new streetscape. Well-coordinated improvements in the public realm can create a unique sense of place and history.

Street Trees and Shade

A good streetscape makes pedestrians as comfortable as possible. After all, lingering near shopping or visiting with neighbors are both community-building activities.

If you have hot weather where you live, you'll need shade. Street trees are ready-made for this, although if you intend on their giving shade, they need to be selected to have a shape that offers a canopy. Columnar shapes don't provide much shade.

Order trees as large as your nurseryman thinks practical, and as large as you can afford. Twigs don't impress people too much.

Any supportive tree rings, which prevent the small tree from being snapped off, and your tree grates, which allow watering to reach the roots, should be carefully thought out to match or complement the material you are using on your benches and other elements of the streetscape.

The other benefit of street trees and landscaping is that they provide a welcome bit of unpredictability. Organic shapes from plants offer infinite variety and provide curvaceous lines, stubborn imperfection, and glorious color. Plan for year-round color, by the way, from foliage or woody shrubs if not from flowers.

Also consider very strongly whether foot traffic, dogs, road salt, and pollution from cars will damage any landscaping you plan. And avoid monoculture, the practice of planting all one species. The reason is that if disease strikes, then you might be left with no street trees.

Consider carefully what happens to the trees in various seasons. You don't want the street department to complain for two solid months about the pods, seeds, and leaves they have to clean up.

I'm not saying the trees must be evergreen, but be careful with the type of leaf sweeping operation you're creating for yourself. And those beautiful flowers in spring? Do they fall off and make a slimy mess on the sidewalk when they're past their prime?

Geoffrey Donovan, a Portlander who has researched trees, shows that the rental value of housing increases with a street tree nearby. People actually preferred their street trees nearby rather than right in the middle of the property. Interesting, eh?

Another little gem from his research is that large street trees actually accompany low crime, whereas small trees near homes are associated with higher crime.

If all of these cautions about street trees discourage you, another shade possibility is an awning program or shade structures to fill awkward spaces gracefully. You also could have a splash fountain for the kids or a place for the grown-ups to dabble their feet in the water.

Street Landscaping and Gardens

Landscaped parkways or tree lawns (the area between the curb and sidewalk in a typical neighborhood or business district), landscaped medians, potted plants for sidewalks and street corners, and landscaping borders along the fronts of vacant lots also should be considered as part of your streetscape.

If your community is interested in rain gardens or grassy swales, as opposed to routing stormwater runoff directly along a curb and into an inlet system, your streetscape program definitely could include such improvements.

The rain gardens (consisting of plants that enjoy being very wet or flooded) or swale, a depressed area ideally planted with water-loving grasses, filter out the sediment and some pollutants from the stormwater. Also they slow down the water, which decreases velocity, leading to less damage from any flooding that might occur.

Streetscapes Might Include New Sidewalks

A streetscape program then may include replacing the sidewalk, often incorporating a new color or pattern into the concrete. Sometimes also to make the street more pedestrian-friendly, the sidewalk is extended further into the street at the ends of the blocks, thereby shortening the distance the pedestrian has to travel from curb to curb.

These may be called bulb-outs, or a variety of other terms. Such techniques really add to making yours a walkable community.

Beware of exquisitely detailed sidewalk patterns, as it may be very difficult to make the pattern look right at each doorway.

That's not to discourage you from a geometric pattern, but just beware that store and office entranceways require a considerable amount of planning and coordination with property owners. Regardless of how careful you are, it's possible that the design simply doesn't coordinate well with the shop or office doorway.

Paver stones, whether real or synthetic, also might be incorporated as accents into the sidewalk. Often the curb is left its natural gray concrete color, with the actual sidewalk taking on a different hue.

Glitter may be mixed into the concrete for entertainment areas, and many colors of concrete are possible.

It's best to mix the concrete color or additive all the way through the mix rather than apply a thin veneer on the top.

It's also possible to obtain striking color effects with asphalt these days, and you might want to try mid-intersection logos or place-relevant patterns.

Street Furniture, Such as Benches

Next you need to consider outdoor seating. Make the benches sturdy and serviceable, because if you install something that can be easily stolen, vandalized, set fire to, or otherwise rendered inoperable, it is only a matter of time before that happens.

Make sure the park bench or other seating is as comfortable as possible, given that it likely will be metal.

Arrange benches in a pattern that will be comfortable for users. In other words, think about how close people in your culture would like to sit across from or next to strangers. Also consider carefully whether people want to rest near heavy traffic.

Some places have been inventive and created sidewalk pavers that look like a rug between two facing benches. So let your imagination rule for awhile, and then bring it back down to earth with brainstorming all the possible downsides to your plan.

If your area might become a homeless hangout, or already is one, consider installing the benches where they are divider arms, so that a person cannot lie down on the bench to sleep.

Trash Cans, Bike Racks, Drinking Fountains, and Such

Benches seem to bring out candy wrappers and such, so plan for trash receptacles and determine how they will be emptied. Consult with those who will pick up the trash before you choose a design.

You may want to have a trash can on a corner even if there is no bench. You don't want packaging and receipts blowing around your business area.

Another amenity to consider is the bicycle rack. If you have the kind of community where people feel safe leaving their bikes, you can encourage stopping for a cold beverage or a cup of coffee if there's secure bike parking. A bikeable community is very desirable now.

Depending on climate, you may need to install a drinking fountain. In some neighborhoods, the kind with the low bowl for dogs is popular.

During your streetscape program, you also might want to consider public restrooms if that is a need in your town. If you go to the expense of making them available and maintaining them, give us a discreet sign every once in a while to show where they are.

New street lighting is a very common element of a a streetscape program, as wiring can easily be installed or moved to accommodate the new bases when sidewalks are being replaced.

Will you need an electric vehicle charging station?

Wayfinding and Marketing Signs

As you're planning streetscape, look at your signs and awnings again. Attractive signs to help visitors find their way around are always welcome, as are signs pointing out historic sites, important government offices, and parking.

If you work with a professional, they will call this "wayfinding" signage or a wayfinding system, which might involve pavement colors, for example, instead of signs.

You can contract with a graphic artist to design attractive interpretive signs with vandalism-resistant coverings to explain your history. You aren't limited to brass plaques. These signs would be oriented toward pedestrians rather than drivers.

If you're interested in a common signage program, where each business has a small perpendicular sign of a common size extending out from its front door, for instance, this is the time to implement that program.

Uniform awning programs work well with new streetscape too. Sometimes special business districts or business improvement districts subsidize the awnings for individual merchants.

Substitutes for New Streetscape

If you investigate the choices and feel that your community can't afford any of the options, look carefully at some plain wood garden benches, that can be backed up to the storefronts and bolted down. Also check into large pots or half barrels that can hold annuals. Something inexpensive such as petunias still will add color, motion, and vitality.

If you can't afford to color your sidewalk, maybe three times a year you have a chalk painting contest and become famous for it.

And keep in mind that I'd rather see a vital business district, where people are continuously going in and out of shops, with a plain old gray concrete sidewalk, than a dead business district with an artful streetscape.

Because people are the very best ingredient for adding color, motion, unpredictability, and interest to your street!

In fact, we recommend a book about making your neighborhood memorable in general: The Great Neighborhood Book: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Placemaking.

Relevant Subjects:
pleasant downtown street
Downtown Redevelopment

empty shopping mall
Shopping Center Redevelopment

Another benefit of doing nothing is that a streetscape program, in which the sidewalk is replaced, street trees are planted where there were none before, and so forth, disrupts the business district for a whole season or more.

Can your businesses afford to alienate their clientele for two to five months while you pretty up the place? By that time, customers might have found another place to buy a cup of coffee.

If you decide to move forward with a new streetscape look, plan very carefully to provide for pedestrian safety and an understandable system of showing where it is safe to drive, park, and walk. Invent a slogan for your streetscape program and talk about how great it's going to be when it's finished.