The design of Washington, DC’s public space is one of several qualities that sets the city apart from other American cities. Washington, DC has a long history of using public space to shape the city’s image and improve living conditions in a dense urban environment. Starting with the Parking Act of 1870, legislation passed by Congress gave the city the authority to set aside part of the right-of-way as park land. Regulations are still in place today that protect the area between the sidewalk and property line (or building restriction line) as part of the city’s park and open space system. This enduring feature of the city contributes to the park-like character of streets and reputation as a walkable city. Washington, DC has continued this tradition to the present day, promoting the protection of green space in residential areas and creating guidelines for commercial areas and developing neighborhoods to encourage public space that is an attractive part of community life and a transportation system with characteristics distinct to specific neighborhoods.
A streetscape is the result of two things: the physical environment and the uses that take place within public space. To help shape the character of new areas that are in the development phase and protect the quality of existing neighborhoods, the District’s streetscape standards, guidelines, and policies guide changes to public space. Physical features that are reviewed for design include sidewalks, landscape, fences, retaining walls, street trees, and other infrastructure like street lights or curb and gutters. Uses that impact the character of public space include sidewalk cafes, vending, street festivals, and other temporary activities.
In partnership with the District Department of Transportation, the Office of Planning works with District agencies, residents, and the private sector to ensure the design of public space is of high quality and meets minimum requirements. Every property owner plays a role in maintaining the city’s public spaces. Homeowners are responsible for maintaining the green space in front of their property that looks like a front yard but is often public space and part of the city’s park and open space system. In commercial areas, wide sidewalks provide spaces for businesses to display merchandise or operate sidewalk cafes. The city’s standards and regulations for public space apply to all parts of the city. There are some areas - such as the Downtown, NoMa, Mount Vernon Triangle, Florida Avenue Market, and Buzzard Point – that have additional streetscape requirements that reflect their location and unique characteristics that take advantage of context-specific opportunities.
The Government of the District of Columbia encourages everyone to understand the importance of our shared public space. It is important to understand how your efforts fit into larger goals for the city to use public space in a way that enhances communities across the District. For more information, contact Chris Shaheen, Public Space Program Manager of the DC Office of Planning at (202) 442-7616 or by email at [email protected]
Streetscape Design Guidelines
- Kennedy Street Streetscape Guidelines
- Access to Terraced Residential Buildings Guidelines
- North Capitol Streetscape Guidelines
- Buzzard Point Streetscape Guidelines
- Columbia Heights Public Realm Framework Plan
- Downtown Streetscape Regulations
- Union Market Streetscape Design Guidelines
- Mount Vernon Triangle Transportation and Public Realm Design Project
- NoMa Streetscape Guidelines
- Public Realm Design Manual
- Public Realm Handbook