The Persistence of Bad Ideas, Part 1: The Devil Strip

Josh Stephens's picture

(Prefatory musing: As the title implies, this is Part 1 in a series. I haven't yet mapped out any of the other parts, but considering the boundless errata that clutter American cities, I anticipate little trouble finding objectionables to raise my ire next time my monthly deadline approaches. I welcome my fellow Interchangers to follow suit.)

People often accuse me of being a negative person, reveling in misfortune and criticism. But they have it all wrong. My optimism springs from my ability to tolerate, and even thrive admid inanity. Otherwise, I would not live in an American city. I could spend all day wandering around and wondering why things got this way and how solutions might arise. Nothing fascinates me so much as the proumgation of bad ideas--and the reluctance of otherwise rational people to combat them with all their might.

I imagine that the planner who first decided that pedestrians and buildings needed protection from the street had his heart in the right place--and thus emerged the "Devil strip." Though the name is unfortunate both for its lack of originality and its evokation of clear heels (not to mention its apparant provenance of Northern Ohio), the derogation is well earned.clear heels, baby

Los Angeles, my city of infinite flaws, is lousy with them. Every dingbat apartment and erstwhile suburban tract has its very own piece of the Frontier out beyond the entryway, beckoning indecorous dogs and wayward sofas and all other manner of trash to take up residence where neither property rights nor the law of the land prevails. The result is a quirk of planning that confers no benefits on anyone. It makes no one safer. It makes nothing prettier. And it makes no one richer.

In all my years of living on a busy Westside street, neither Hummer nor Lexus nor Prius has ever tried to make acquaintance with my sidewalk, and even so, it would have to go through the phalanx of cars that are always parked streetside. Cars are not panzer divisions, and three feet of grass is not the Maginot Line.

Perhaps in renderings the Devil strip lends a pleasing spot of green to the urban thoroughfare and keeps those evil, forboding buildings at bay. I think of New York and Paris and London (which I will invoke as often as possible for as long as this blog lives -- why did planners toil through the 20th century as if cities hadn't been perfected 100 years earlier?), I think of how the streets and parked cars cower at the forboding buildings that might, absent that tiny fairway, pounce on them at a moment's notice. Oh. Except they don't.

Time and again, throughout the world, the landscapes that humans hew to most dearly all entail an element that has never made its want on to a planner's spreadsheet. Above all else, people like, for lack of a better description, to feel cozy. Indoors y'all can get cozy however you want--ain't none of my business. But outdoors, cozyness stems from elements of medium height providing a cieling under which we may roam. Too-short buildings spaced too far away from each other create the sense of agoraphobia that plagues Americans in ways that most of us don't understand. Just go to the Grove or Greenwich Village if you don't agree. In those places, buildings do not shy away from the street but rather nestle up next to it creating distinct but connected spaces from interior to stoop to sidewalk to motorway. (More on setbacks and street trees some other time.) It just makes me think that whichever planner invented our dear Devil strip had no capacity for pleasure and no love for cities.

But let's get down to brass tacks: In America, the last word rests on finances, so let's see how hell's .0034 acres looks on the ledger. Your childhood two-bedroom home in West L.A. where mom, dad, and the kids squeezed into a 1,600-foot house on a 12,000-foot lot is going for about $900,000 now for a teardown, so the land is worth maybe $75 per foot. The city of Los Angeles (you can do the math for anyplace else; the principle still applies) has 13,000 curb-miles of streets. Even if, say only 10 percent of its streets are so afflicted and of that 10 percent, half aren't so perfectly manicured that we couldn't possibly do without them, then fully 10.3 million square feet of Los Angeles--today worth north of $500 million are going to waste. To put it another way, dogs might as well releive themselves on their owners' Persian rugs, because they're cheaper than than any stretch of grass.

Of course, none of this matters. At least we can raze ugly buildings and sometimes even bury rusted highways. But we can't sell 40'x3 ' lots, and we can't otherwise make Devil strips go away and scootch the city's 13,000 dimensions in accordingly, as if projecting the city on to a smaller-scale map. If we could, the city would be more dense without loss of residential space or lane-miles. Riverside wouldn't be nearly such a long commute, and West Hollywood woudn't exist because Hollywood itself would have moved more, well, west. At best, we could rename it, or perhaps organize a nonprofit to plant rows of daffodils.

Like so many other planning mistakes cast in the media of concrete and asphalt, the Devil strip will forever remind us of the sins that planning can commit. If I had a soul, at least I wouldn't have to go very far to sell it.

Josh Stephens is a contributing editor of the California Planning & Development Report ( and former editor of The Planning Report (



Wow, 3 feet!

Around here we wish developers would provide a 3 foot wide tree lawn. Usually it's only 1 foot or nonexistent. I am referring to residential areas where this strip makes sense. The design of urbanized areas may be such that the tree lawn would not be appropriate.

I like the devil strip in the photo included in your post.

Three feet may be worse than nothing.

Three foot planting strips, in my view, may be worse than nothing. Most trees need wider tree lawns else they will break pavement.

The trees that can fit in narrow widths without breaking pavement are of small stature and often interfere with the mirrors of garbage trucks and street sweepers; the resulting limb breakage by trucks allows pathogens access to the tree, reducing chances of survival. When trees die in these narrow tree lawns, they are rarely replanted. The turf isn't wide enough to be a positive visual amenity to the homeowner, so often they are not well maintained & look bad.

Best to have a minimum 6-foot tree lawn for tree survivorship or figure out something else, because narrow tree lawns often become visual liabilities.

Wide tree lawns, OTOH, support trees. Trees provide canopy. Canopy provides multitudinous benefits, among those being a few benefits explained in this recent LAT op-ed and further explained in detail here.

We should, simply, make room for trees by providing them with properly-sized tree lawns to capture the benefits trees and their tree lawns provide.



Three Feet Looks Good To Me

I live in an old streetcar suburb built 100 years ago that has 3-foot planting strips, and I have found that they work well.

There have been some problems when the wrong species of tree was planted - eg, camphor trees planted probably a century ago regularly crack the pavement - but the city has a list of approved trees that do not cause problems.

The plantings in the three-foot strip make a big difference visually, but the strip does not take much land, so the neighborhood works well for pedestrians.

The illustration for this article seems to show a planting strip at least five-feet wide. I have only seen that in more suburban neignborhoods that are not very walkable, though I suppose it is possible to have a five-foot strip in a walkable neighborhood.

Charles Siegel

Form and function in tree lawns.

Sure, Charles, there are some neighborhoods that keep them up, but there are many more that don't in my experience.

My point is that if you want the maximum amount of ecological benefits conferred by an urban forest canopy, 3 ft won't do it and 6 is the minimum to get a large-statured tree (bigger trees, more benefits).

Conversely, in cities with expansive viewsheds like in, say, the Bay Area or Seattle, the tree lawns aren't utilized because big trees block views, but many other places use 6 or 8-ft lawns.



More On Tree Lawns

I agree it would be better to have wider planting strips (and narrower roadways). But I do think the 3-foot strips that we have are much better than nothing: they really improve the character of the neighborhood.

Charles Siegel

More tree lawns.


I don't doubt Berkeley has nice 3-ft tree lawns. Before practicing in the Denver area (where I'm tired of seeing cr*ppy gravel in narrow tree lawns), I practiced in Western WA and the older neighborhoods in Seattle have fun, wide tree lawns with all kinds of interesting stuff in them. The suburbs with narrow tree lawns often have no trees in them (died or beat up by vehicles so pulled) that get scant attention.

My main point remains that it is better to have wide tree lawns to foster growth of large trees. I enjoy the allee down many of Chico's streets, for example, which cut the brutal summer heat (no Delta breeze up there)...

OT, but maybe not - have you heard the decision that the SWP has to cut the pumps at Tracy? Monumental implications for cities in CA...



Six feet is better

In my city, they're called "parkway strips" and are a minimum of six feet wide.

Yes, such strips are inappropriate in more urban settings, where it makes more sense to have any trees planted in a grated opening in line with parking meters on the sidewalk, or in a treewell in the street in line with the on-street parking. However, for a classic residential neighborhood with single-family and small scale multi-family construction, a parkway strip makes a significant positive contribution to the streetscape.

If planted and pruned correctly, the street trees will eventually form a canopy over the street, with individual trees growing to 60 or more feet in height. Such a street canopy becomes a prized feature in a mature neighborhood (especially in locations where summertime temperatures are in the triple digits), shading both both pedestrians and cars parked on the street.

Questions On Parkway Strips

Is your neighborhood walkable? How wide are the streets?

My neighborhood with 3-foot planting strips was built in the first decade of the 20th century for people who had to walk because they did not own vehicles. I live two blocks from two different shopping streets. The neighborhood streets are 36 feet wide (10-foot traffic and 8-foot parking lanes)

My guess is that your neighborhood was built in the 1920s or later and that it was build for people who owned cars. I suspect it has wider traffic lanes (and faster traffic) than my neighborhood, as well as wider "parkway strips."

It is clearly possible to build walkable neighborhoods with wider planting strips, and I agree that it is a good idea to do that in the future. But I don't think that it happened that way historically.

Charles Siegel

Definitely walkable


The older parts of my city (Chico, CA) are generally 40 feet curb-to-curb within a 66-foot (one chain) ROW. These older streets were laid out in the late 1800s, but generally have lower vehicle speeds than the width would suggest due to the heavy utilization of on-street parking and the mature tree canopy.

Newer local residential streets are 32 feet curb-to-curb within a 56-foot ROW, consisting of 10-foot travel lanes, 6-foot parking lanes, 7-foot parkway strips, and 5-foot sidewalks. Connectivity isn't always as high as I'd like, and the mix of land uses is less than ideal in some parts of town, but we're making progress.

Greg Redeker

moved comment

deleted and reinserted in correct spot...

LA Bias

I'm surprised no one has brought up the author's fair weather bias. One time that buffer strips (or whatever you may call them) show their usefulness is during a northeastern winter. They move pedestrians out of splash and spray range of passing vehicles, making walking in bad weather tolerable.

Equally important, they provide a place for snowplows to dump snow other than on the sidewalk. Shoveling the icy, compacted snow left by a snowplow is back-braking work. With only a few feet of snow storage, the sidewalks are behind the area of compaction, and shoveling is much easier. Only at intersections do you have to chisel through the icy wall.

Even in fair weather, they have benefits. Noise is an inverse square phenomenon. Double the difference between a pedestrain and a vehicle, and vehicle noise is cut to one fourth. On a busy arterial, this can make the difference between a nice walk and a loud, unpleasant experience.

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