Streets for Living, Ben Plowden

Streets for Living

What are streets for? Ben Plowden considers the answer to this apparently odd question, which has major implications for policy and practice in urban planning, design and transport. It affects how money is spent, how space is allocated and how professionals are trained. Above all, it affects the design, construction and management of streets and public spaces. This in turn has a profound impact on local quality of life.

For thousands of years, streets and public spaces have done many jobs. They have been social spaces, places where you met friends or neighbours or mixed with strangers. They have been the venue for romance, from La Passegiata in Mediterranean countries to the tradition of promenading in 18th Century England. Streets and squares have played host to markets and fairs, demonstrations, marches, rallies, riots or revolutions. Streets have been places for stopping and resting, eating and drinking, celebration and mourning. And they have been places where both adults and children have played.

Streets have also been places for movement. People walking, riding horses and later bicycles, or travelling in coaches and buses. And goods being carried on people's backs, by horse and cart or lorry.

The car effect

For most of human history, all these different functions could be fulfilled simultaneously in the same space. But the arrival of mass car ownership and the dawn of the Motor Age transformed the character of roads and streets. The movement of cars and lorries has become their primary function. Motorised traffic has literally driven out all the other jobs streets used to do. What the Danish architect Jan Gehl describes as the 'life between buildings' has been ruthlessly suppressed.

The new primacy of the traffic function of streets has had a number of effects. Villages, towns and cities have been reconstructed to accommodate cars and lorries. Roads have been widened, junctions re-modelled and space given over to moving and stationary traffic. Neighbourhoods have been levelled for roads and car parks. New housing estates, business parks and supermarkets are planned and built on the assumption that their residents, employees and shoppers will be using a car. The resulting low density, single use developments on greenfield sites make meaningful public interaction almost impossible. The needs of people not in cars and lorries, notably pedestrians and cyclists, have taken second place to those of drivers.

The noise, stench and physical danger of traffic make being outside unpleasant or even impossible. Lintell and Appleyard's famous research in San Francisco showed a direct link between the volume of traffic on city streets and the number and quality of relationships between local residents. Streets with little traffic enjoy a rich network of friendships and acquaintances. On streets with the heaviest traffic, people barely know each other's names.

The wider degradation of the public realm reflects the low status given to the non-traffic role of streets and public spaces. Streets are full of litter and dog mess, badly lit, poorly maintained, under-policed and deserted after 6 o'clock. These blights can deter some people from going out at all, particularly older people and women. For others, a dirty and dangerous street environment makes being outside unpleasant and frightening.

It is not just the environment that has been re-designed for traffic. Planning and highways departments in most local authorities are staffed and structured round the need to keep traffic moving. The education, training and career structures of transport planners and highway engineers are orientated towards designing, building and managing road infrastructure. Few people in national or local government have the skills needed to think creatively about the use of streets as anything other than traffic routes. If urban design skills exist, they rarely influence important decisions.

Birmingham city centre - a good example of attractive spaces for walking and stopping

A typical traffic-focused road layout in Glasgow - in the foreground roads designed entirely for fast-moving traffic. In the background a concrete footbridge requiring a major detour to cross a busy road
Berkeley University, California - demonstrating the role of streets as social and political spaces
Socio-economic consequences

Creating a world designed for traffic has had major social and economic consequences. Research published with the Urban White Paper analysed the reasons why people leave urban areas. This showed that nearly one in five (18.7%) of urban dwellings were assessed to be in poor environments, compared to only 4% of those in suburban or rural areas. The research also found that one in ten recent movers identified 'moving to a better area' as the reason for their move, with this accounting for a higher proportion of movers to suburban and rural areas. Urban areas were also much more likely than rural or suburban ones to have serious problems with poor air quality; heavy traffic; nuisance from street parking and litter/rubbish dumping.

Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that people on low incomes and in poorer communities have far higher levels of concern about the state of the local environment than the better off. Given that a child from social class V is over four times more likely be killed as a pedestrian than a child from social class I, this is hardly surprising. Nor is any surprise that those able to move out of degraded urban areas do so.

A new approach

How might these problems be tackled? The most important requirement is local political leaders with a clear sense that streets are for people, not just for traffic. Cities like Birmingham, York, Copenhagen, Portland and San Sebastian have all benefited from far-sighted and determined political leadership over a prolonged period. Next, the planning system should be used to create dense, diverse patterns of land use. Walkable communities are those with relatively high population densities and shops, schools, parks and GPs surgeries within a reasonable walking distance.

A new approach to the planning, design and engineering of the road network is needed too. At present, roads are classified solely by their traffic function (trunk road, local distributor etc). This ignores their role as social, economic and cultural spaces. We need a new road use hierarchy that recognises streets as places for living, shopping, meeting, talking and sitting.

This approach has been adopted in Portland, Oregon. The city's roads are classified according to whether pedestrians, public transport or cars have priority. This classification then informs planning decisions and application of the city's highway design guidance. A similar approach is evolving in some British cities. York City Council has long had a road user hierarchy that puts pedestrians and cyclists at the top. Bristol City Council is developing a similar system that gives greater weight to non-motorised users. Unfortunately, the UK Government recently rejected the idea of a new road classification in its response to the DETR Select Committee report on Walking in Towns and Cities.

Once a new road use hierarchy is in place, the Highways Agency and local authorities should audit the roads for which they are responsible. These audits would determine whether the engineering and design of a road is consistent with its new classification. Investment would then be undertaken to change the physical character of those roads where this was needed to support walking, talking and shopping. Interestingly, the DTLR has just announced funding for ten pilots to examine the scope for re-modelling major roads running through town centres.

Range of solutions

Giving greater weight to the interests of people not in cars does not mean pedestrianising all streets. There is a spectrum of pedestrian priority. At one end is the total exclusion of all traffic 24 hours a day. At the other is the motorway network. Speed reduction, traffic restraint, wider pavements, more pedestrian crossings, shorter waiting times, longer crossing times and the removal of barriers all increase pedestrian priority without requiring pedestrianisation.

The Strand in central London has been successfully re-designed to improve pedestrian priority while still carrying general traffic. Cities like Birmingham, York and Cambridge have developed attractive pedestrian cores, although these allow limited access for public transport and deliveries. The centre of Gothenberg in Sweden is divided into traffic cells that prevent people driving through the old city. The Corporation of London has virtually eliminated through traffic and is creating a high quality environment within the 'ring of steel'. The Downtown Transit Mall in Portland Oregon is designed to discourage through traffic while allowing free movement of buses and trams.

Pedestrian priority areas should extend beyond town and city centres. Portland's Pedestrian Districts are local centres where the design of the road network assumes that travel within the district will be on foot. Cities like Gothenberg and Malmo in Sweden have adopted Home Zones outside residential areas, to create walkable environments in local centres. The UK's first Home Challenge fund was oversubscribed several times, suggesting a huge unmet demand for civilised streets.

Making streets into places is not just a matter of traffic engineering. It requires a clean, beautiful, legible and safe public environment. People need places for stopping and admiring as well as good routes for movement. They need well-designed lighting, seating, signing, paving, public toilets, sculpture, fountains and trees. These need to be planned coherently, based on local urban design standards. Creating such an environment is expensive. The specially designed bus shelters in Portland Oregon's new Downtown Transit Mall cost $80,000 in 1974. The average house in the city cost $60,000. But the shelters were integral to the design concept of the Mall. Nearly 30 years later, they are as striking and well maintained as ever.


Maintenance, management and policing are crucial. Capital spending on environmental improvements will be wasted if money is not provided to maintain and manage the public realm. Broken pavements, litter, graffiti and flytipping need to be tackled if people are to feel safe and comfortable on the street. The police have a vital role in enforcing the laws that underpin people's willingness to spend time out and about. This includes public order maintenance and prevention of dangerous driving.

The Government has finally woken up to the importance of well-designed and managed public spaces for people's quality of life. In a speech on Liveability before the 2001 election, Tony Blair acknowledged that "the one public service that we all use all the time is the streets where we live. And in too many places, streets and public spaces have become dirty, ugly and dangerous." A Treasury-led team is now reviewing all government policy and spending affecting the public realm as part of the 2002 Spending Review. Public spaces are suddenly a hot topic.

What are streets for? Streets are for living. And, as Mr. Blair has recognised, living streets are an essential component of community life. #

Ben Plowden