On Narrow Streets

Let’s think of every amazing city you’ve been to, at least the ones that have been amazing for their form and dynamism. Imagine a streetscape, and think about its form. How wide are the streets? How tall are the buildings? Are there a lot of cars, or a lot of pedestrians? Let’s also think of the ideal, the city you always wanted to visit. Venice comes to mind, as do Paris and Jerusalem. Odds are, these cities look a bit like this:

Courtesy of Google

What I love about the streetscapes above is that I get an overwhelming sense of home from them, but I’ve never lived anywhere but the suburbs. Then again, the downtown streetscapes of San Anselmo, Fairfax, and Mill Valley are pretty impressive:

And places are still being built that look like those quaint French villages we pay so much to visit, although these are called slums:

The elements in each of these are very similar: narrow streets, active pedestrian life and slow or no cars. I point this out not to be sentimental but because although this is one extreme, it is the one that is the most healthy, the most economically viable, the most environmentally sustainable. Marinites bemoan our car-centric attitudes and look with a little bit of aloof sadness at the state of obesity in Middle America, but we ought to always be wary of making the same mistakes that led our Middle American fellows to their current sorry state.

We’ve looked at some plans for redeveloping the eastern end of downtown San Rafael, and I suspect the Civic Center plans will be similarly ambitious and potentially transformative. Yet there is so much to get wrong: developers building fortress apartments, city staffers choosing cars over people, focusing on more and more parking rather than things that engage our hearts and make us feel at home, not interlopers in an automobile’s world. I hope instead we take inspiration from the best places in the world, to make Marin the greater place it could be.