31 October 2008

The Streets We Need

mechanical and social developmentAlfredo Landaeta
Not so long ago, streets were very simple: no sidewalks, curbs, infrastructure or public transit, and without strict differentiation between pedestrians and other means of transportation. Ancient mesopotamian cities show narrow streets and cul-de-sacs that provided access to courtyards linking clusters of dwellings belonging to extended families or clans. Streets were not a continuous system connecting urban settlements but rather the minimum necessary space required to delineate distinct clusters. It is perhaps this concept of the street as the in-between that first tinted it with a social undertone, establishing such spaces as the meeting place, the political arena, the place of commerce.
MediƦval streets show a similar simplicity: street networks evolved, becoming more complex, intertwined and hierarchical in nature and, in many instances, actively incorporating trees and landscape as part of their design.
The street as a socially populated void with minimal technological attributions is still very much in use today. Informal settlements in developing countries, products of completely unregulated and unplanned development, usually generate dramatic streets and alleys, uncannily proportioned to the human scale, uncaring of accessibility codes or infrastructural logic. These spaces arise purely from the tension between the pressure of occupation and the need to circulate. There is an organic quality in these spaces that is clearly lacking in the formal city.
In many contemporary cities, streets have become flow: their value is not for what they host, but for how good they flush; the simplicity of the original void has been filled as an inevitable consequence of modern life, with a long list of stuff: parking, public transport lines (at times in exclusive rights-of-way), mail boxes, lamp posts, power lines, storm water channels – and all that just above the surface. Below grade is almost as crowded with water pipes, telephone lines, electrical cables, gas and sewage lines, fibre optics, metro lines, district cooling and heating, even grey water lines for landscape irrigation. In fact, streets are the de facto location for most of our ever-increasing infrastructure needs. To design a street these days is to necessarily accommodate, combine and reconcile all of these different requirements.

This mechanistic conception of the street as a device for the mobility of people, vehicles and services leaves little room for the street as a true public space. Good streets not only function as conduits for all types of transportation and services, they also must perform as social ground, negotiating transitions between zones and loaded with historical and cultural content.

The value of the street is based in the complex ballet of movements and carefully timed rhythms and sequences that it hosts (compellingly amplified and portrayed by fast-motion movies such as the 1983 Koyaanisqatsi) than in its spatial qualities. This exhilarating tapestry of movement and activity is the very definition of modernity; it is what draws rivers of people to urban centres and what simultaneously repels and attracts us.

Let us look at a typical mid-density neighbourhood street servicing a mixture of residential and commercial uses. Depending on the culture, context and climate we will find that the street, conceived as a technological device, is designed, calibrated and built with the intention of maximising the performance of non-human elements — the social component is often negated entirely. Differentiated strips for pedestrians, trees, vehicles and public transit facilitate the uninterrupted flow of traffic, justified by arguing that this clear separation is for the safety and congeniality of otherwise incompatible uses and activities. As such, the contemporary street is inevitably hierarchical and specialised, predestined at the design stage to fulfill a specific role within the urban continuum.

What happens if the initial assumptions established at the planning stage no longer hold true, or if significant technological changes begin to affect the behavioural patterns of people? What if political and cultural changes cut deep enough to affect the nature of its use, or if the basic assumptions related to the cost of mobility are challenged?
Our paradigms for developing and designing our cities, and by extension our streets, are currently under revision. Growing environmental awareness is placing great pressure on a way of life that is increasingly wasteful and responsible for our current state of environmental deterioration. As this awareness permeates the core of our values, changes will begin to accelerate. Streets will require as radical a redefinition as will our production-consumption-disposal cycle.

Wishful thinking? No. This transformation is of similar proportions to the one experienced when the industrialised world transformed itself into the car-oriented society of today. Car manufacturers in conjunction with the oil industry successfully lobbied for an aggressive highway system that put suburban development on steroids, making it not only a possibility but the preferred alternative to traditional urban life. This transformation was unstoppable; there have been very few other historical moments with such a concurrence of interests: the cultural perception of a better way of living complemented quite neatly by the interests of big corporations, swiftly backed up by politicians with the necessary regulatory backup.

Climatic change and emerging environmental awareness are creating a new alignment of interests based not on a perception of how we might live better, but on the assumption that such a transformation will ensure that life itself will continue. As research and scientific evidence amasses, the future looks bleak indeed. As pressure on leaders and political institutions to deal with global warming and environmental degradation increases, cities are likely to become the preferred ground for a fair number of initiatives — escalating oil prices and pollution levels demand measures that reduce car dependency, favour public transit and increase densities.

The potential for the most change exists in personal and public transportation – more bicycles on the road, more designated bike lanes. Bicycles and pedestrians will share the public realm with alternative mobility options such as Segways and electrical bikes, replacing some or most cars (even if alternative technologies reduce the nasty side effects of internal combustion engines, personal cars still require significant and unconscionable space to circulate and park while consuming massive amounts of resources for production and maintenance). Public transit can be diversified: high capacity buses with reserved lanes, people-movers along pedestrian corridors and personal rapid transit systems (PRTS), where small automated vehicles in dedicated lanes transport people directly to their destination. Streets, therefore, will be forced to accommodate different overlapping systems of mobility at the expense of driving lanes. As with most human inventions, accumulation of knowledge results in better and more elegant solutions.

It is impossible to know how streets and cities will evolve and change as society shifts paradigms; technology, education and social aspirations seasoned with ample doses of chance will play equally important roles in defining the emerging dominant trends. No matter how they develop, streets as design artifacts will have an obligation to be responsive to climate and location and, most of all, to be tailored to reflect local values and cultural standards. Streets should be the sites where people act in concert, as Hannah Arendt defined politics in its broadest sense. Maybe then, by understanding the streets as spaces of true social interaction, they will echo a new and better urban ideal.
Landaeta, Alfredo. 'The Streets We Need' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Alfredo Landaeta and On Site review

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