On the Street Where You Live: Residential Streets as Outdoor Living Rooms

A street in Saint Paul’s Cathedral Hill.

“On the Street Where You Live” is a song by Frederick Loewe with lyrics by Jay Alan Lerner, from the 1956 Broadway musical “My Fair Lady.”

Considered in another context, we recognize almost all of us live in places facing a street functioning in a practical role providing a means of travel to connect ourselves with the world around us. But for the purposes of this writing, for many of us in city neighborhoods, the street is where we live and the street, to some extent, defines who we are. Our streets form our communities where we mingle with our neighbors and share various collective values. We take for granted that these roles are our variation of citizenry. Put another way, our residential streets have become our outdoor living rooms. In American neighborhoods the preeminent form of public space is streets. We consider what is outside the street’s pavement to be the domain of aligned properties that often share a community-developed architectural code. Among these streets, people have gained generalized parity with cars, despite the fact that streets’ primary role is to enable cars to perform their primary role in transportation. When streets were originally platted in the late 19th century, vehicular movement was their almost exclusive function, with public sidewalks and boulevards very ancillary components determined by street engineering.

Cities are becoming more attractive for various middle class domains. In the decades following the 1950s, de-industrialization has made more urban areas attractive. Smoke stacks and railroad trackage have largely disappeared from nearby residential neighborhoods. The move from urban to suburban has been reversing in the last several decades. Are there lilac trees in the heart of town? Can you hear a lark in any other part of town? Does enchantment pour out of every door? No, it’s just on the street where you live.

Today, the street where we live has economic conditions. On one hand, homeowners are being handed massive public subsidies: the mortgage interest tax deduction and capital gains tax exclusion when the property is sold. With wider public consequences, various statistics state the cost of buying a home today is increasingly unaffordable to many potential homebuyers. A concern should be the long-term ability of millennials to buy a house.

The desire of many urban home owners to find the right house has been accompanied, as well as complicated, by city planning regulations. Zoning was a response in the early twentieth century to the detrimental effects of industrial pollution. While it isolated factories from their noisy and dangerous activities; the car traffic and parking spaces in residential areas also increased, to which zoning has devoted considerable effort for enacting regulations. Many urban observers accept zoning while calling it in many ways an imperfect instrument.

Perhaps the most significant measure of livability in Minneapolis and Saint Paul comes from the effect of the residential property platting. In a recent Streets.mn article, Bill Lindeke states, ”…nothing can match traditional grid-based urban density when it comes to generating tax-base for a city. These differences are huge and often underestimated because of how we think about land value.”

Compared to cities in the eastern regions of the nation, lot sizes in Minneapolis and Saint Paul are somewhat larger, resulting in more outdoor space around houses, giving light and air, and complementing trees on properties and in boulevards to create pleasant cityscapes. It is this notable ambiance that many realtors proudly advertise when they promise to find us the right homes in our urban communities — on the street where we live.

Homes on Saint Paul’s West Side.

About Robert Roscoe

“A camera teaches you how to see without a camera.” Dorothea Lange My professional experience includes over 36 years of architectural office experience, with the last 21 years as principal of Design For Preservation. My education includes a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History, and five years at the School of Architecture, University of Minnesota. I served 21 years on the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission and I have written articles for Architecture Minnesota, a publication of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. I have given lectures on preservation architecture at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture and various public forums. Art photography is a main avocation for me, focusing on capturing images of abandoned parts of the built environment, and I have been featured in several art exhibitions. I have co-authored a book on County Catholic Churches and am the author of the book Milwaukee Avenue – Community Renewal in Minneapolis. Also, I am editor of the infrequently published Journal of American Rocket Science.