31 October 2008

Living Streets

Rita and Ken Brooks
It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished. —William Whyte

When we say ‘street’ we think river of asphalt. Turning 50% of our urban area to the passage and storage of cars has become normal. Lousy streetscapes don’t just happen, it takes hard work, a lot of money and the commitment of an astonishing array of enablers to suck the life out of streets. Our streetscapes are unloved not because they are neglected; love is irrelevant. Take another look at the image above, again. In a 20th century functional exercise, our streetscapes are in the hands of traffic engineers who distill streets to a single purpose – to maximise the unimpeded flow of traffic. Our streets are designed as traffic sewers.
If we thought of our streetscapes more as living rooms and less as corridors, we would find ourselves a lot closer to fully utilising our streets as real public assets. We need to stop engineering traffic corridors and start designing living streets.

Living streets are —
1. multipurpose public spaces that embrace walking, cycling, sitting, shopping, dining, transit and usually but not always, cars.
2. active social spaces for meeting, playing, entertaining and one of our favorite pastimes, people watching.
3. alive with vegetation, including trees and gardens just like the linear parks they should be.
4. beautiful, have clear spatial definition, express the character of individual streets and contain elements of surprise and delight.
These characteristics of living streets have two interesting and interrelated consequences: they slow down traffic and they create inviting places for people to be. These may seem at first to be nice but underwhelming attributes but they have a lever effect on creating some pretty remarkable side benefits.

I remember an old ad campaign with a simple tag line: Speed Kills. Blunt and to the point, it captures a truism of safety: ‘a variety of factors may contribute to a collision, but the outcome depends on the speed the car is travelling’. A British government study found that when vehicle speeds were reduced from 60 kph to 30 kph, pedestrian deaths dropped from 85% to 5%.
There are several ways in which living streets contribute to a reduction in the speed of traffic. Reducing lane widths to accommodate a multifunctional streetscape is one very simple and effective way. The city of Longmont, Colorado examined 20,000 collisions over an eight year period. They found that ‘as street width widens, collisions per kilometre increase exponentially’. Tree-lined streets also contribute to reducing traffic speed. Research has shown that drivers go up to 20 kph slower on a street with trees than they do on one without.4 However one of the best ways to slow cars down is to have lots of people out on the street – socialising, entertaining, just watching their children having fun. David Engwicht, a traffic calming activist from Australia, refers to the effect that a spontaneous, vibrant, social street life has on traffic, as mental speed bumps.
Another interesting and perhaps surprising benefit of reducing lane width to slow cars down is that this helps to maximise the efficiency of the carrying capacity of roadways. The fact is that no matter how fast traffic moves, the number of cars a lane can carry stays roughly constant. You can’t move more cars by speeding them up, because the increased amount of space required between cars outweighs whatever gain you think you might make. A car lane reaches its peak capacity when cars are travelling roughly 40 kph (25 mph); that is, at a nice safe speed.

Good business
Often unappreciated is the fact that living streets make great business sense. Jan Gehl, an urban design consultant, when discussing pedestrian zones in Copenhagen said ‘shopkeepers protested vehemently that it would kill their businesses’. They quickly discovered that these fears were unfounded. Pedestrian traffic has more than tripled over the past 40 years and the pedestrian district is now the thriving heart of a reinvigorated city.
When West Palm Beach, Florida converted several wide thoroughfares into narrow two-way streets, traffic slowed and people immediately felt safer walking. This increase in pedestrian traffic attracted new shops and apartment buildings, and property values along one of the town’s main streets have more than doubled.
It is perhaps one of those things that is so obvious that it passes notice, but the most successful public spaces are the ones that attract people. Unless you have a drive-in store, pedestrians are the main ingredient of any business. By providing beautiful, distinctive places to be, sheltered by trees, safe and easily reached by a variety of means, you’ve essentially created a pedestrian magnet. And there is a symbiotic relationship between business and the creation of great public space. Each enhances the opportunities for the other.
McGill’s Avi Friedman notes ‘Where you live, however upscale your community, could be killing you’. This is largely due to how we engineer streets to cater to car travel; ‘We have engineered out physical activity’. The decline of safe, walkable streetscapes in North American towns is considered a major factor in our obesity epidemic and consequently our susceptibility to heart conditions and strokes. Living streets reverse this trend, providing seductive incentives to get out of our cars, making physical activity a pleasure and a part of daily life rather than a chore to be sweated out at the gym.
Trees on streets provide obvious health advantages. Lung-damaging particles and pollution are filtered from the air and replaced with oxygen. They also foster a healthy environment by moderating severe heat – providing up to 9°C difference between shaded and exposed streets, reducing noise pollution and conserving water. And it is not just physical well being that is at risk where we foster single purpose roadways over living streets, there are also psychological repercussions. Consider this sad statistic: ‘People in very high traffic areas have an average of 0.9 friends. This means that some of these people have no friends at all!’

Moving forward
If we switch our approach from engineering single purpose street-scapes – traffic corridors, to designing streetscapes as multi-functional ecosystems – living streets, we will foster a reincarnation of our streetscapes as inclusive, healthy, friendly, safe, environmentally thoughtful and economically sensible public space, not only useful for moving through and locating ourselves within the city but also delightful.

If we can develop and design streets so that they are wonderful, fulfilling places to be – community-building places, attractive for all people – then we will have successfully designed about one-third of the city directly and will have had an immense impact on the rest. —Allan Jacobs

Brooks, Rita. 'Living Streets' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Rita and Ken Brooks and On Site review

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