The Better Block ideals build upon tried-and-true principles that have been codified and outlined by urbanists in the past. One such source of inspiration is David Sucher, the author of City Comforts. In it, he explains the essential elements of walkable, livable cities in three simple rules:
1. Build to the sidewalk (i.e., property line).
2. Make the building front “permeable” (i.e., no blank walls).
3. Prohibit parking lots in front of the building.
Sucher emphasizes that, more than architecture, the success of a neighborhood lies in the orientation of its buildings. “The key decision in creating a walkable, pedestrian-oriented neighborhood, is the position of the building with respect to the sidewalk. This decision determines whether you have a city or a suburb,” he says.
Build to the sidewalk
Property lines should always abut the sidewalk, channeling pedestrians into one area to encourage neighborly proximity. As a sub-rule to this requirement, Sucher suggests that the entry level of a storefront should be as level as possible with the street, not only to abide by ADA laws, but to make it easy to see into and enter the building.
Make the building front permeable
“Life attracts life,” says Sucher. Therefore, pedestrians should be able to see and participate in the activities and amenities offered in their community; place windows and doors along the sidewalk instead of blank walls, don’t block parks with high walls, and ensure that the main entrance to a business is immediately off of the sidewalk. A sub-rule to this mandate is to prohibit anything that would block visibility from the street, such as mirrored glass or heavy blinds on storefront windows, which discourage pedestrian engagement with the businesses in their community.
Prohibit parking lots in front of the building
In true urban neighborhoods, there are no parking lots in front of the buildings; they are either below, above, behind, or beside it. Sucher doesn’t deny the necessity of parking lots in cities, but they should never be the focus. “Parking lots are crucial,” Sucher says, “But unless you are in high school, or are at a tailgate party before a football game, or at a classic car concours d’elegance, parking lots are not the place you want to hang around. It is ironic, of course: we invest such great money and emotion in our cars and yet we don’t want to hang around them in parking lots.” If buildings must be built to the sidewalk to encourage pedestrian life, there can’t be a parking lot separating the business from its patrons. “Save the front for people,” Sucher says.
The following GIF illustrates how something as simple as the placement of a parking can dictate whether an area is suburban or urban:
Though Sucher’s rules are simple, they are often ignored in today’s planning processes in favor of big box stores, tight budgets, or strict parking requirements. Better Block attempts to take neighbors negatively impacted by these malpractices and re-creating vibrant, walkable neighborhoods by bringing storefronts to the sidewalk, making them inviting to the pedestrian, and encouraging streets and neighborhoods that don’t ignore the importance of the car, but are primarily designed for people. Any planning department can follow the three rules as a basic pattern for creating a successful city. “After the three rules,” says Sucher, “everything else is epilogue.
You can read more about Sucher’s three rules in “City Comforts,” or his summary online here.