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California and the West

Narrower Streets Help Redefine Curb Appeal

Cityscape: Neighborhood design element is seen by builders and city planners as a way to create more tightknit and attractive communities.


IRVINE — Driving along the freshly paved streets in this city's newest planned communities, you can be excused for feeling slightly claustrophobic.

That's because many of the gently curving roadways on the edges of a dense orange grove are as much as 30% narrower than the standard 36-foot-wide residential street.

The design is seen by developers and city planners as a way to create more tightknit and attractive communities. Narrower streets have become common in new neighborhoods from Palm Springs to San Clemente, and have the added safety advantage of forcing cars to slow down.

The trend extends across the nation. New planned communities in Texas and Florida include even narrower residential streets than California--some as tight as 18 feet across.

The look is part of a larger effort to make residential areas more pedestrian-oriented and to get away from the black-and-white look of streets and sidewalks.

To that end, city and county planners report a revival in the use of parkways--lawns that stand between sidewalks and streets. Developers also are increasing their use of colored tiles and brick to accent streets.

"I think the feeling is that the streetscapes have more asphalt than we would like," said Jim Holloway, San Clemente's community development director. "There is a definite shift we are seeing in new development toward less pavement and more colors and vegetation along streets."

One of the most cutting-edge street designs is found in the new Glenneyre at Lanesend section of Irvine, where builders created a narrow road surrounded with strips of grass.

Under the grass is plastic, providing a hard surface to allow vehicles to drive over it when passing stopped cars and offering adequate space for fire engines.

Planners say that other compact streets will be seen in several large south Orange County developments, including the 8,100-home Ladera community near San Juan Capistrano.

In Riverside, the county's Planning Department is reviewing its road width requirements because of growing interest in narrower streets. The minimum width is 32 feet, but planners might reduce it to 28 feet for certain types of planned neighborhoods and retirement communities.

Putting roads on a diet is a contrarian concept in the world of transportation, where the focus is almost always on widening streets to improve traffic flow.

"Narrowing the road causes cars to drive 15 mph to 20 mph. You don't get anywhere fast, but that's the point," said Loren Evans, local roads chairman for the American Society of Civil Engineers.

"By reducing the space between you and your neighbors across the street, you are more likely to say 'good morning' and have a chat," said Evans, noting that smaller roads also give developers extra land for homes.

The new look seems popular with residents and potential home buyers. "It feels cozy," said Sandra Green, an Orange retiree who is looking for a house in Irvine's Northwood village. "No one wants to live off a big boulevard. . . . It's impersonal."

Urban planners began experimenting with narrower roads more than a decade ago. But the idea has become more popular in recent years with the rise of "New Urbanism," an architectural movement aimed at increasing human interaction and neighborliness in suburban communities.

In Irvine, plans for subdivisions in Northwood and Lower Peters Canyon include street widths as much as eight feet less than the 36-foot standard if street parking is prohibited.

"We've had requests for even narrower ones, but we haven't approved them," said Timro Rifiq, the city's principal transportation planner. "That would be cutting it too close."

Irvine and other cities also report increases in the use of chokers, which are designed to reduce the speed of traffic. Chokers are extensions of the sidewalk that jut into the roadway, narrowing the street to as little as 24 or 26 feet.

City planners and transportation engineers largely support the move to smaller streets. But some fire departments have proved to be tougher customers.


The Orange County Fire Authority, which reviews development plans along with cities, has rejected several street designs and approved others only after builders agreed to equip nearby homes with indoor sprinklers or locate extra fire hydrants in the area.

"We are looking at this with a critical eye because the smaller the street, the more difficult our engines and trucks have maneuvering around," said Capt. Scott Brown of the Orange County Fire Authority. "We know that people are sensitive about the aesthetics of the street. But our focus always has to be on safety."

Most firetrucks measure roughly eight feet wide by 45 feet long. But officials said they need at least a 20-foot-wide street when operating during emergencies.

The department has purchased slightly smaller fire engines for use in communities with narrow streets.

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