On October 25th, 2018, I participated on a lecture about Sustainable Urban Transport by the Urban Designer Martin Podevyn, where we went through the evolution of transport through time, specifically with the appearance of motor vehicles, and how this shift has affected the urban environment, and the design and use of roads and public spaces.
Dales (2016), based on the 1963 Buchanan Report makes a critique on how we “have chosen to prioritise particular vehicles over our civilisation, by solving traffic problems in ways that have damaged our towns and cities.” This author also mentions how people have become addicted to travel by car, making them “unable to be rational about proposing alternatives”. This fact becomes more worrying when you compare it to the statistics from the 2014 National Survey Report where “66% of the journeys are less than 5 miles, and yet 64% of them are made by cars”.
As a way of finding solutions to this situation, Podevyn presented different strategies and alternatives (i.e. cycle infrastructure design, varied public transport options, etc.), being implemented around the world to counter the negative effects of a car-oriented society. But what if we better tackle issues from community scale to city scale? Why don’t we start by understanding how people get around their neighbourhood on foot? How about, instead of just amending what’s wrong, we start to design our streets as places?
There was a time in our cities and towns when getting from here to there was a pleasant and often enriching experience. Then, as the automobile encroached, people and places were shunted aside
Project for Public Spaces, 2008
Nowadays, it’s clear the role cars have played in the disappearance of places in communities by making streets to lose their multi-functionality as public spaces. However, it is our job as urban designers to create better streets and walkable communities, in order to address transportation issues in ways that place the most value on people and on places (PPS, 2008).
Streets are the basic layout of a city’s urban fabric and are the predominant elements of the image individuals build of their city, observing the city while moving through them (Lynch, 1960). According to UN-HABITAT, a city is considered as prosperous when it has a generous and well-designed street pattern. But these days, we are facing the reality that streets are mainly seen as conduits to transport people and goods. Nevertheless, if they were acknowledged to accommodate all users (pedestrians, transit users, cyclists and cars), but with people, not cars, shaping them, it would create a sustainable street network, which would help us to rebuild our communities with the priorities in the right order.
They have been different solutions given to traffic problems, in order to make transportation improvements. PPS made a list of some “remedies that just make things worse” when it comes to street designing, such as:
- One-way streets, with wider traffic lanes and dangerous speedways, that makes it difficult for people to move from one side to another.
- Elimination of street parking, which adds more traffic lanes and encourages more speeding traffic, making it necessary to build parking garages, which take people off the street completely.
- Traffic signal timing, with longer green time for vehicles, meaning less walk time for pedestrians to get across the street, particularly older people, children and those with physical disabilities.
- Broad corner turning curves, which makes it easier for cars or trucks to turn around a curve, but for pedestrians mean higher speeds for vehicles, longer crossings and less warning time to see oncoming cars.
- Speed limits and street design. When a street design implies it being very wide, very straight and very flat, it makes speeding easy, even when speed limits are set low.
The above so-called “solutions” focus narrowly on traffic and how it can be expedited instead of addressing how traffic can fit into a vision for building livable communities
Project for Public Spaces, 2008
We already know how we get things wrong. Then how can we get it right by making streets great places?
When we talk about streets it is not only the vehicle lanes. It is also the sidewalks, the curb, the trees, the urban furniture, the storefronts, and the many other uses along the way. That’s why reducing the motor vehicle priority is not the only intervention needed in order to give communities streets they could enjoy, travel comfortably and safely, and encourage them to participate in civic life.
Benfield (2013) based on Dover (2013), gives us a simple but rightful list of design elements that help turn streets into worthy places, which are: “sidewalks with real curbs, on-street parking to buffer pedestrians on the sidewalk from moving traffic, street trees, storefronts with covered areas that shelter pedestrians, buildings that show signs of human occupancy (to allow the “eyes on the street” and safety Jane Jacobs talks about).
The Metrocable system in Medellin, is a great example of how to integrate sustainable urban transport with good design elements to create a community-friendly street environment, which reflects the character, needs and aspirations of that particular community.
PPS (2008) present another design strategy for streets: traffic calming, whose objective is to give places that sense of community by maintaining the human-scale. This strategy uses elements such as: various pavement textures, diagonal parking, widening sidewalks and narrowing traffic lanes, extend the sidewalks into the streets through bulbs, bumpouts, divert pathways, among others, so that drivers move at the same speed as walkers, thus accommodating all street uses (cars, pedestrians, cyclist) in the same place, but increasing the safety and comfort for those moving on foot.
As we see, there are simple but effective elements that can be used when designing a street that can determine how people use it, and how inviting it is to foster community participation and to strengthen public life in a place that was considered “to belong” just to cars.
What about you? Tell me which great design elements make your favourite street a great place.
- Dales, J. (2016). No prizes for originality. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.urbanmovement.co.uk/thoughts/no-prizes-for-originality-john-dales. [Last Accessed 25 November 2018].
- Project for Public Spaces (PPS) (2008). Streets as Places: Using streets to rebuild communities. (Booklet)
- Lynch, K. (1960). ‘The City image and its elements’. In: (ed), The Image of the City. 1st ed.: The M.I.T. Press. p.47
- UN-HABITAT, (2013). ‘Executive Director Foreword’. In: (ed), Streets as public spaces and drivers of urban prosperity. Nairobi: UN-HABITAT. p.4
- Project for Public Spaces (PPS) (2012). Placemaking and the Future of cities. (Booklet)
- World Health Organization (2007). Global Age-friendly Cities: A Guide. Switzerland: WHO
- Benfield, K. (2013). Streets can be public spaces too. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.citylab.com/design/2013/07/streets-can-be-public-spaces-too/6235/. [Last Accessed 26 November 2018].