Urban design: Time to rethink the street?

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The street scene is an incredibly important space in our urban environment and it is often overlooked for the architecture around it. However, it would seem foolish to understate such a fundamental space in our cities and towns. Architecture has developed significantly over hundreds of years but the street has hardly changed. So, is it time to go back to the drawing board and create more welcoming, 21st Century streets?

Streets are now so much more than transit routes to get from A to B. They are an integral part of city living and have been for decades. With the onset of autonomous vehicles and the global decrease in car ownership and purchases, is too much of the road delegated to the car? With calls for major UK cities to scrap car usage in city centres, it is clear that there is now a new initiative to change the way we use and design our streets.

Los Angeles are taking great strides to try to improve the street, a space dominated by cars for nearly 100 years

Car ride company Lyft recently partnered with architects Perkins+Will and conducted a study on one of the busiest streets in Los Angeles. Currently, 29,000 people make use of the street per hour, of which 18,000 walk on the incredibly small pathways either side of 10 lanes of traffic. It is astounding that 62% of the people that use the Wilshire Boulevard in LA are confined to only 17% of the available street space. To tackle LA’s chronic traffic issues, Lyft suggested a change in lane usage, extra wide pavements and the development of extensive landscaping. The lanes were to be adjusted to 21st Century living with the two centre lanes reserved for autonomous vehicles (including new public transport initiatives), a further two lanes for cycling and three lanes for general car usage. Even with fewer lanes, this layout can serve 77,000 people per hour, over 2.5x the amount the street serves today. These changes, of course, rely on the increased uptake of public transport, walking and cycling. However, with LA working to ensure that half of its journeys are through green transport by 2035, the ambitious goals created by Lyft are perhaps not as ludicrous as they first seem.

As Lyft push for a smarter street, the way people, both professional designers and pedestrian users, view streets needs to change as a whole.

The street should be taken and designed on a case-by-case basis. They can have as much character as the buildings around them if only the design was right. We cannot live without travel. However, what if we were to live and travel at the same time? The journey and use of the space between leaving home to get to work or to meet friends should be one that has the potential for a great amount of productivity and enjoyment; this is what our streets lack today. We talk of the homogenisation of the high street shopping scene and yet we have overlooked that the very streets we walk on are homogenised themselves!

It is interesting how, when travelling abroad to stunning continental cities such as Barcelona or Paris, we notice a difference in the streets we walk. It is often one of the major pull factors to many city districts; the grandeur and shear beauty of the street itself. I am not, however, suggesting that every street has to be marble lined and limestone flanked. Yet, by thinking about what sort of character urban designers want to convey through the street scene, our open urban spaces and streets will become interesting again – not just a monotonous series of white and yellow lines.

The Avenue des Champs-Élysées gives Paris room to compress the streets between buildings and create meaningful and pedestrian-friendly roads

So: streets can be made more efficient, they can convey a sense of character but, most importantly, they are or have the illusion of being public spaces. Whilst they may be owned by councils, governments and private landowners, streets are perhaps the places that feel the most liberated. A sense of public ownership befalls nearly every street across the world. This is the beauty of the spaces between our buildings and it needs to be celebrated. Creating streets with wider, more accessible pavements, reducing the size of the curb and integrating intelligent street lighting and furniture are just a few of the ways urban designers have looked to improve the street.

As the global community pushes for a future with fewer cars and more walkers, bikes and pedestrianised zones, the concept of “the street” needs to be overhauled and rethought. The street is a source of social change, a place for meeting, a place for ideas and excitement and even a place to live. Let’s start to give our streets the recognition, thought and high-quality design they deserve.