AT HOME IN SILVER SPRING • BY STEVE KNIGHT & KAREN BURDITT
Urban Planners and Architects use a term when talking about urban communities: Streetscape.
Much like a landscape, a streetscape is a view of the world around us, the combination of elements that make up the shared and public parts of a street. Silver Spring is fortunate to have many examples of successful streetscapes, the result of forward thinking developers at a time when Silver Spring was changing from a rural hamlet to a popular suburb. Those early developers understood that paved streets and sidewalks would increase the value of their properties. Think of the streetscape as the “curb appeal” of your block.
Our streets are made up of several elements that work together to create the uniquely livable streets we know and love in our neighborhoods. When your walk your dog do you find yourself frequenting some streets more than others? Ask yourself why some streets in the area seem to “work” better than others; what are the various elements of that favorite street? Streetscapes are like delicate ecosystems: take away any one of the elements and the remaining elements will be weaker as a result. Let’s discuss the elements of the typical Silver Spring Streetscape; the street, the curb, the sidewalk, the front yards, the houses, and the layers of landscaping.
The street is the spine of the neighborhood, its width predetermined but usually wide enough to accommodate street parking along with a drive lane. The street is the vehicular domain, an area that even when quiet requires attention for oncoming traffic. The next element in the streetscape is the curbs, the defining edge of the street. Curbs keep cars within the boundary of the street and protect the pedestrian. Streets without curbs can have haphazard parking edges, the cars creeping into the pedestrian realm. While some more rural neighborhoods can function without curbs, an urban neighborhood, like Silver Spring Park, needs the curbs to define the street edge and provide drainage for runoff.
Next to the curb is usually a narrow border of grass where the street trees are planted. Street trees provide a three dimensional edge to the street, along with cooling shade, seasonal color and a graceful form. Some streets, like Gist, have elaborately landscaped zones between the curb and the sidewalk. These shared gardens add a richness of detail to the pedestrian zone. Sometimes street trees can be of a more ornamental variety, like the cherry, and offer a stunning display of color in early spring.
The next element is the sidewalks, what we think of as the arteries of the streetscape. A clearly defined and level sidewalk provides a safe path for the members of the community, whether it is children walking to school, commuters walking to Metro, or the dog walkers or stroller crowd. A sidewalk is also a safe playground for tricycles and hopscotch, for running and walking. The sidewalk connects adjacent neighborhoods as well as adjacent neighbors. In an urban residential neighborhood the sidewalk becomes even more important as the safe circulation route for pedestrians. Sidewalks connect schools, parks, and bus stops as well as providing access to downtown retail areas. A sidewalk allows more residents to easily walk to their destinations in safety and security.
Up to now we have been speaking of the public portion of the streetscape, the street, the curb, and the sidewalk. Now we talk about the private portion of the streetscape, the yard and house.
The front yard of the house is the buffer between the public and the private. The landscaping can provide multiple layers of interest and detail to this edge to the public realm. Whether you have a lawn of green grass or planting borders filled with flowering plants this is all part of the streetscape. Even a hedge at the sidewalk can define the edge of the public to private.
Last, but certainly not least is our favorite portion of the streetscape; the front porch. Actually the porch can be a stoop, or even a simple front door; it is the face of the house. A front porch will add another layer of detail and transition between the private realm and the public realm. A porch is where the homeowner can see and interact with the neighborhood, but at arm’s length. The porch allows the owner the discretion of interacting with the block while a front stoop requires interaction with the neighborhood. The house front is the final element of the streetscape, providing the final screen and edge to the block.
There are some successful streets in Silver Spring, the streets the dog walkers always go down, the ones that parents with strollers frequent. The cool shade, the interesting landscaping and the interesting houses are the elements of the streets that work. Violet Place, Richmond and Gist all work well from a streetscape perspective. The small lots and tight front yards clearly define the extent of the streetscape. Creative landscaping spreads down the block expressing the individuality of the homeowners.
Go and stand at your front door and look out over your block. You’ll observe the streetscape particular to your block; the houses, the yards, the sidewalks and curbs and the street. You’ll observe the layers of landscaping at each house, and the line of the public to the private. Note the successful portions and see if you can determine why your block has curb appeal.