FEATURE: Complete Streets: The importance of design in the creation of better streets and spaces

“Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads!” – Doctor Emmett Brown, Back to the Future, 1985

We are rapidly approaching 2015. The ‘future’. Or the future as envisaged in the Back to the Future films. So it is perhaps a good time to ask whether Doc Brown was right – do we need roads? Sadly, flying DeLoreans aren’t yet available to buy, and, perhaps sadder still, the dream of owning a Hoverboard is still just that. So Doc was wrong, we do need roads. Or was he?

There is of course a place for roads but, critically, in an urban context we need to think in terms of streets. This is not just a case of semantics: there is a very real distinction between the two. Roads essentially connect two or more destinations between which people and goods are transported. For roads think motorways and motorised traffic.

Streets, however, are part of the urban fabric. Streets have frontage and are important public spaces that facilitate engagement and social interaction, and which allow people to move about through a variety of means, including crossing from one side of the street to the other. Streets are designed with the human scale and human interaction in mind, allowing people to feel safe and secure in attractive environments. Or so they should.

But many of our towns and cities still suffer the consequences of the car being placed above and before others. We still often experience town centres fragmented by complex gyratorys and one way systems, where pedestrians are crowded on narrow pavements, often behind guardrailing and bollards, where street signs and lighting clutter the environment, where pedestrians funnel through cattle-pen arrangements to cross from shops on one side of the high street to the other. This approach is somewhat odd and indeed counter-intuitive. After all, no matter how we travel between places, at some point we all become pedestrians, so why don’t we design for a better balance?

“Great designers change society” – Martin Roth, Director, V&A Museum

At Parsons Brinckerhoff we believe in the ‘Complete Street’. These are streets that are designed for all users, modes and abilities. The nature of the street is linked to the role and function of the place and, through this, the needs of pedestrians, cyclists, public transport and drivers re-balanced to create places that cater for all, which contribute to an improved public realm and boost the economic potential of an area.

Over the past several years New York has taken a bold approach to the transformation of streets and spaces across the city. The New York City Department of Transportation has collected a series of metrics[1]. These have shown that where better walking and cycling provision have been integrated as part of the street, so they have become safer and more attractive places for people to spend time and, perhaps importantly in the current climate, spend money in.. Collisions and speeding have also declined, there are fewer commercial vacancies than elsewhere, and the proportion of trips by cycle and by bus have increased. The report demonstrates that designing for all users, for safety, and for great public spaces can go hand in hand.

Closer to home, a report for the Central London Partnership and TfL in 2003 demonstrated the economic benefits of good walking environments[2]. This stated:

“Improvement of the quality and “walkability” of central London and other established centres can no longer be seen as a luxury, it is vital to their continued competitiveness and economic success. Excellence in pedestrian planning and urban design is required.”

The Cabe research, “Paved with Gold”[3], said much the same. It showed how good street design contributes both economic benefits and public value, that investment in design quality brings quantifiable financial returns and that people value improvements to their streets.

More recently, there has been a focus on town and city centre revitalisation. Whether or not you agree with all of the recommendations made by Mary Portas, her review of high streets[4], set against a backdrop of high street decline and increasing vacancies, made the critical connection between the quality of the retail offer and success of our town centres with the quality of the environment.

The Mayor of London has recently published his “Roads Task Force report for London”[5]. One of the key objectives of this is the achievement of ‘better balanced streets that improve the experience for all users and transport modes’. Sitting alongside this is a handy reference guide: ‘Better Streets Delivered’[6]. This shows how streets can be well designed to help support local vitality, offering a good quality of life, an efficient and effective transport network. It includes a series of principles that can be used to help make better streets.

So, towns and cities matter, the economy matters, streets matter, and good design matters. But we still struggle to bring this all together. This is why political buy-in, consultation and engagement is central to the Complete Streets approach, empowering communities to activate visions and turn these into achievable plans that sustain and build thriving communities. This approach fundamentally challenges the way we view communities and the way we design, build and use our streets.

Streets are the arteries of the city. Unblocking these can make for a healthy, vibrant and attractive city. Once we do that, perhaps then we can turn to making the dream of a Hoverboard into reality.

Jon Herbert, London, UK, +44(0)20 7337 1733, jon.herbert@pbworld.com

Jon Herbert is a Senior Professional Associate and spatial planning lead within the PlaceMaking at Parsons Brinckerhoff. A planner with more than fifteen years’ experience, he has worked on many policy and design studies. He is a CABE Built Environment Expert and member of the Placemaking Leadership Council.

At Parsons Brinckerhoff we blend expertise in land-use planning, urban development, sustainable design and urban realm with our traditional infrastructure design skills, to make streets and spaces that are better for everyone.

[1] New York City DOT (2012) Measuring the street: New metrics for 21st century streets

[2] Llewelyn Davies (2003) Economic benefits of good walking environments, A report to Transport for London from the Central London Partnership, March

[3] Cabe Space (2007) Paved with gold, The real value of good street design

[4] Mary Portas (2011) The Portas review, An independent review into the future of our high streets, December

[5] Mayor of London (2013) Roads Task Force report, The vision and direction for London’s streets and roads, July

[6] Mayor of London, Transport for London and Urban Design London (2013) Better streets delivered: Learning from completed schemes, July

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