One of the most basic principles of the New Urbanism and smart planning is the idea of creating a comfortable street space within which pedestrians feel safe and welcome. This flies in the face of modern sprawled commercial development where a network of roads and parking lots makes getting from Point A to Point B on foot a truly treacherous experience.
A friend of mine who lives in England told me about the time during a visit to the United States when he exited his hotel on foot and decided to walk to a restaurant that he could see not 500 yards away. After a few minutes dodging traffic and attracting stares, a police cruiser pulled over and advised him to get in; "You don't want to be out here walking," he said. So much for exploring the environs around his hotel.
Typical commercial zoning restrictions force builders of commercial buildings to provide a set amount of parking, and the rules go further to actually require that the building be set back from the street in order to lay the parking lot right out front. The result is the familiar commercial wastelands seen all across America, where burger joints and tire centers are spread across the landscape with huge spaces between them. These commercial jungles are designed to be accessed point-to-point by automobile: it matters not that you can see your next destination as you exit the Border's book store, you have to get in your car to get to that Qdoba 200 yards away or risk life and limb traversing the asphalt.
In the book THE NEW URBANISM: TOWARD AN ARCHITECTURE OF COMMUNITY by Peter Katz there's an excellent SIMCITY-like series of illustrations that show how setback and non-setback commercial spaces develop (as always, click for larger image).
The three panels above show a typical commercial building that conforms to standard, excessive setback and parking codes (in this case, for the community of Riviera Beach, FLA). As a growth scenario is played out in successive frames, we see the familiar and hostile "sea of parking" develop.
A proposed new code aligns buildings of various sizes with the street edge and puts parking at the rear of each lot. There is also a continuous arcade above the sidewalk. As growth occurs under the new code's guidance, a real main street develops that can support pedestrians and cars.
A more "real-world" illustration.
Above, a street in Riviera Beach.
Next, a build-out scenario simulated using typical "setback" restrictions.
And, finally, a build-out simulation using a new master plan and codes.
Which looks more inviting?