Emergency Response and Street Design Initiative

In recent years, new urbanists and firefighters have discovered both common interests and shared challenges in neighborhood street design.

The Emergency Response & Street Design Initiative, a collaboration between the Congress for the New Urbanism, fire marshals from across the United States, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Smart Growth program, is working to reconcile narrower streets and good emergency access. Street connectivity — specifically well-connected networks of traditional street grids — is essential to good urbanism, shortens emergency response times, and improves overall community life safety.

With the release of the Emergency Response and Street Design Initiative report,written by Carl D. Wren, CNU is promoting dialogue between planners, city officials, and emergency responders in the urban design process and addresses the role of street design and connectivity in reducing emergency response time and creating safer, more livable communities. Wren initially presented the report at the 10th Annual New Partners for Smart Growth Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. In addition, CNU has released a summary report on the Emergency Response and Street Design initiative.

Initiative Background and Timeline

From that foundation, the coalition is cooperatively working to change the International Fire Code with proposed amendments empowering local fire code officials to be flexible on street designs. CNU members Carl Wren, Norman Garrick, Danny Pleasant, and the EPA's Danielle Arigoni wrote new language for Section 503 of the IFC — the passage that mandates designated fire access roads have at least 20 feet of clear space.

CNU members Patrick Siegman, a transportation planner with Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates in San Francisco, and Peter Swift, a civil and traffic engineer and owner of Swift & Associates in Longmont, Colo., also wrote a new appendix (Appendix K) that can be adopted by local jurisdictions.


These changes were presented to the International Code Council in Baltimore, Md., on Oct. 26, 2009. The ICC's Fire Code Committee approved Appendix K, but rejected the proposed Section 503 language. CNU's summary of that vote is available here. For a complete summary of the Baltimore proceedings, please visit our coding page


The ICC's Final Action Hearings, held May 14-23, 2010, in Dallas, Texas, saw members reject both CNU code proposals. However, opponents did allow that the current fire code has the inherent flexibility to allow narrower streets in some circumstances. We have made the full video of the code hearing available for viewing

Initiative Detail and Action

The initiative team has also added a new chapter on emergency response to the CNU/Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) Proposed Recommended Practice, Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach, which advances the successful use of context-sensitive solutions (CSS) in the planning and design of major urban thoroughfares for walkable communities.

Underlying the ER initiative are a few basic facts that carry throughout all of CNU and its partners' efforts. Namely, wider streets lead to higher traffic speeds and greater chances for fatal collisions, vividly illustrated by CNU member Peter Swift's study, Residential Street Typology and Injury Accident Frequency. Depending on their context, such streets damage, if not destroy outright, any sense of an inviting, walkable place. As communities sprawl outward and homes are built further and further from firehouses, firefighters and other emergency responders find it increasingly costly and difficult to maintain acceptable emergency response times. Those times suffer, and response distances increase when street networks are designed as poorly connected mazes of culs-de-sac.

To meet these challenges, new urbanists and firefighters are finding that building compact neighborhoods with highly connected street networks can provide a solution that keeps homes close to fire stations and out of high-hazard areas. A 2008 study of street connectivity by the city of Charlotte, N.C., presented at CNU's Transportation Summit 2008 by host Danny Pleasant, proves this point.

There are also occasions when the desire for narrow streets and calmer neighborhood traffic collides with the need for fast access and ample working room for fire equipment. The Emergency Response & Street Design Initiative was launched to solve this problem through better street connectivity and design, better building construction techniques, and better education for firefighters and new urbanists about each other's professions. For a more detailed history of the initiative, click here.


  • CNU's proposed International Fire Code amendments.
  • CNU Report on Emergency Response & Street Design lays out the case for traditional streets in connected networks, summarizing findings from earlier work and case studies including Peter Swift's study, Local Government Commission case studies of developments in Memphis, Seattle, and the San Francisco Bay area, and other studies cataloged by the Initiative team.
  • This article from the November 2009 American Journal of Preventive Medicine (a PDF file), offers the latest proof that sprawl lengthens emergency response times.
  • Oregon's Neighborhood Street Design Guidelines (a PDF file), which resulted from a cooperative effort to reduce street widths.
  • Presentations from, and a summary report of the October 2008 working group meeting are available here.
  • Presentations from and a summary report of the April 2008 Smart Growth Streets and Emergency Response Workshop are available here.
  • An annotated bibliography and collection of articles and studies that helped form the informational skeleton for that workshop can be found at the website of Florida Atlantic University’s Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions, which is a partner with CNU in this project. This collection includes the Swift study and excerpts from a study done by the city of Raleigh, N.C., in 2000, showing a fire station in the most connected neighborhood can cover three times more structures than a fire station in the least connected neighborhood.
  • Sprinkler systems also give fire marshals much more comfort with the question of narrow streets, and flexibility in accepting them. Capt. Frank Kinnier, an assistant fire marshal with the Chesterfield County (Va.) Fire & EMS and workshop participant, explains why here.
  • At CNU 18, a presentation was given titled, "Safe Streets for Healthy Neighborhoods". This presentation addresses many of the Emergency Response Initiative topics.


For more information, to get involved with this initiative, or if you know of other studies that address street network connectivity or the relationship between street width and traffic speed, please contact CNU Program Manager Alex McKeag.


Top left photo courtesy of LouAngelini2008, via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.


A fire truck at a fire department meet and greet in Danville, PA (Photo courtesy of Mike Styer)

An example of mountable curbs, Longmont, CO. (Photo courtesy of CNU)

A woonerf in Seattle demonstrates the human scale of narrow streets. (Photo courtesy of CNU)

The traditional connected street grid allows many ways to get to an emergency, which gives emergency responders shorter response times. (Photo from "Over Washington, D.C." via David A. Sargent.)

The typical suburban pod development restricts emergency responders to only one or two ways into a subdivision, and few access options once inside. (Lower left photo courtesy of David A. Sargent; others courtesy of City of Ventura, Calif., via David A. Sargent.)

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