The lost art of making streets for people

  • Opinion
  • October 4, 2018
  • Steve Burgess
The lost art of making streets for people

Steve Burgess is a transport engineer and urban strategist with 30 years’ experience around movement, transport, place, car parking, and their influence on the prosperity of towns and cities. Here, he explains the challenges of making streets really work for people – and why the best designed streets were built before 1940.

I’m pretty lucky. I get to travel the world making streets, or observing how other people make streets. It’s fun, it’s interesting and you sometimes get a real opportunity to improve life in all sorts of villages, towns and cities.

In the course of all this I always ask people what is their favourite street, why they like it, and the kicker question, when your favourite street was built.

I must have asked that question at workshops, presentations and speeches all over the world (10,000 people over the last 15 years I would say) and there is a very, very solid trend.

People commonly list the reasons they like a street as:

➢ Being green, plenty of trees, shade and shelter
➢ Being safe, plenty of surveillance, slow cars or no cars
➢ Being clean, an open invitation to sit, play, stay, in a clean well maintained, well loved street
➢ Being diverse, having cheap things and expensive things, having locals and visitors, old people and young.

People never, and I mean never, only 2 or 3 out of 10,000, list good traffic flow and plenty of parking as a reason they like a street. We now actually have PlaceScore data from Australia that says when recommending a street to another person to visit, ease of car access and parking is the attribute (they have a choice of 50) that people are least likely to choose as a reason they should visit a street.

The other commonality is that almost nobody, once again only a handful out of 10,000, chooses a street that was built after the 1940’s. So with all our modern training and knowledge in architecture, engineering, landscape architecture, urban design and social science, we actually can’t make a street that anybody likes.

These two issues are related. We make modern streets for cars, and as a result people don’t like them. It’s very simple. In the 1950’s when everyone started to buy cars, we found ourselves being more and more accommodating to cars in our street making. Now we have made streets that are great if you are in a car. But they are not so great if you aren’t in a car. The great city shaper Professor Rod Tolley says we have made cities for canned humans, not fresh ones! He is, of course, correct.

So what to do? Well the solutions are easy to find or determine. While the 20th Century was about getting places, the 21st Century is of course about the places that are our destinations. People like places that have concentrated, vibrant activity, with lots of people walking, less cars, less car spaces. We like places that are clean, green and safe. We like places that are happy and healthy. What we don’t like as humans trying to enjoy a place is fast traffic, hot black pavement, cold exposed streets and polluted air.

So if we know this, why can’t we build a place people like? Unfortunately, our street design standards won’t let us. There are exceptions, but our street design standards pretty much say that to meet the standard, it has to be a place we don’t like. Open, exposed, hot, unfriendly, and only safe if you are in a car. We have to reintroduce the art of making places we like. The spin-off is these places are also more affordable, more efficient, healthier and safer.

The methodology is simple. Start from the outside edges and work inwards. People need room to carry out certain activities - so give it to them. They want places to sit, stand, window shop, eat, drink, gather and of course walk. You need to do some work, as it is different for every city for every activity, but you can figure it out. Then you have to provide for bikes somehow. Catering for bikes means bike riders between 8 and 80. This means slow speed environments and/or protected facilities, bike parking and other end of trip facilities. Frequent public transport on a legible and efficient network connecting dense origins and destinations. After all this we can use the left over space for the cars. Cars may not be wanted or needed in every street, and it’s fair to say that the most prosperous cities towns and villages are the ones and will be the ones who manage with less cars.

Creating places like this gets you in a race to the top, rather than a race to the bottom. That is, in an Australasian context, not competing with downtown Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland by everything being cheaper and it being easier to drive and park. Compete by making better places that people prefer. You are now in a race to the top, so get cracking.

This was originally published on Landscape Architecture Aotearoa and Idealog.

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