Streetwalls are a fundamental component of the built city, which is what we advocate for here at Build the City. What is a streetwall, you ask? A streetwall is the “wall” made by continuous multi-story buildings flanking the edge of a street, on one or both sides. It is the wall the defines the street space. Streetwalls provide a feeling of shelter and security to pedestrians; shade on a sunny day or possibly a shelter from the rain. Continuous buildings, doors and shop fronts keep the walker entertained when walking through the neighborhood, making the walk feel shorter. Street furniture such as sidewalk cafe tables, trees, bike racks, newspaper racks, street food vendors and bus shelters creates both destinations and diversions. Eyes on the street provide safety.
Most large cities (outside the United States) consist primarily of neighborhoods with continuous streetwalls. Wherever you go, you know you are in the city. Your viewpoint is limited to streets lined with four to seven story buildings in all directions, and to all the public life contained in those streets. Paris, Bangkok, London, Guangzhou. The photos along the left show the variety of streetwall forms, streets and architectures, drawn from four continents.
North American suburban environments, however, eschew the streetwall. Minimum setbacks are the norm, to prevent a building from ever touching a sidewalk. Who knows what could happen, claustrophobia? But over the past 60 years the suburban has crept into the city. Cities all across the U.S. have land use codes similar to suburbs: setback limitations, parking minimums, no requirements for curbs or sidewalks. The result is that many U.S. cities resemble suburbs more than the cities of the rest of the world.
Building the city, a process which thankfully has begun in many places in the U.S., requires building streetwalls. “Breadloaf” apartments or condos – 4 floors of residences over street level shops – are a common building form. A form that has become hated by many due to bland architecture, repetitive chain stores and a lack of street amenities. But the advantages of urban density and the creation of streetwalls far outweighs the downsides of these developments. Due to a combination of poor materials and poor installation, most multi-story residential buildings, particularly here in Cascadia, require replacement of the building facade (“envelope”) within 10 to 20 years to correct water damage. The building, its 5 story streetwall and all its residents will remain as a permanent feature of the city, while the bland architectural elements will be replaced many times. They can always to upgraded to something more aesthetically pleasing in the future. Meanwhile, building by building, block by block, the city is built.