Battling City Hall on Narrow Streets & Alleys

mhathorne's picture
Narrow Streets & Alleys

I would be very interested to learn from others how to deal with local government on the issue of narrow streets and alleys. From what I have learned through my own experience development is battling city hall on three fronts:

  • Engineering - conventional engineering standards for residential streets are auto-focused, with little (if any) attention being given to the pedestrian. Engineering departments won't look at anything else because its not "in the book".
  • Public Works - Narrow streets and alleys create problems (in their mind) with things such as snow removal, on-street parking, public -vs- private streets, etc.
  • Fire Dept. - Fire Depts. will stick to the Uniform Fire Code (UFC) requirements which call for 20 feet of unobstructed street width. They may even specify that they require more than that. I am having a city tell me that they require 26 feet of asphalt street width, basing it on APPENDIX D in the UFC which is not a mandatory part of the code. They argue emergency response time for fire safety while diminishing the bigger issue of life safety based on vehicle speeds associated with auto and pedestrian accidents.

How does one successfully navigate the gauntlet being imposed by these three municipal departments to get street and alley standards that both developer and government can be comfortable with? While there may not be clear cut answers to this question right now, I have to believe that there are countless success stories which can be shared which have helped generate movement towards narrower street and alley standards.


narrow streets

You need to get Eng. and fire to work together in the development of the right-a-ways, when it comes to right-a-ways there is no public or private, they must be treated the same, must have sidewalks, street lights, on street parking and wide streets min. 24 feet wide. All this should be written into the town and/or cities Land Development Code.

CNU on the job

CNU's Emergency Response & Street Design Initiative began examining this question, vis-a-vis fire departments, last year in a cooperative project with the U.S. EPA and fire marshals from across the United States.

Please check out the Initiative's page, and feel free to e-mail me with any follow-up questions you may have.

City Hall and Narrow Streets

The growing and compelling body of knowledge demonstrating the value of streets designed appropriately for the urban context is available to any engineer or public works professional who cares to stay current with the state of the practice. Many fire departments also are becoming more flexible. Some are accepting trade-offs between enhancing connectivity through traditional block patterns and narrower street cross sections. The compromise for Baldwin Park in Orlando, FL was reached once the developer agreed to install fire sprinkler system in every structure, including homes - which I have trouble endorsing.

In spite of the information available, some of these folks choose to be unwaivering in their commitment to conventional standards. That is when you appeal to their bosses - city administrators or elected officials. Within just a few minutes, most savvy CNU members can convince city officials of the economic and social benefits of designing appropriate streets and alleys. Most of these cities already have them in their older high value in-town neighborhoods and quietly wonder why "they don't build em that way anymore." Just keep in mind, there also is a significant group of developers and their consultants who also are lobbying city officials not to entertain urbanist design considerations.

Ultimately, citys and towns should hire engineers and public works directors (and fire chiefs) who understand the right way to build urban places. But they will not do so without understanding the alternatives. Educating public officials is a role CNU members must take on at the local level.

Danny Pleasant, AICP
Charlotte, NC


Write your comments in the box below and share on your Facebook!