3 April 2012  – Street design is an age old art-form, arguably a science.  Literally thousands of years old, we have seen street design transform and change many times over.  Streets are different from roads – they aren’t even just little roads – but a different land use all together.

They are historically our critical spaces for trading, socialising, playing, gathering, travelling, communicating, eating, drinking, and even sleeping.  Sadly now it seems all our financial and intellectual effort goes into making streets suitable for cars, and all the other vital functions are being virtually ignored.

  • Photo shows houses in Battery Point Tasmania which still have a connection to their street

There are hundreds of different definitions that try to determine what streets do as opposed to roads but the difference is simple.  Roads get people from A to B. Streets are places and destinations.

Of course there is some “place” function on some roads and some “link” function on streets but these simple definitions still apply and I think adequately indicate how a street should feel as opposed to a road.

Since probably as early as the 1950s and certainly by the 1960s, car ownership has become commonplace in Australian suburbs, our streets have had to change to accommodate quite a bit of movement and car access. This has changed the place value of our streets and we have reacted to this in several ways.

An aerial view of your town will clearly show a delineation of the areas where streets were designed for people, and when we started designing them for cars.

The resilient grid disappears and a twisting maze of sweeping high-speed curves interspersed by a scattering of dead end streets emerges as a preferred living pattern.

Our house designs have hence changed to try and isolate us from the machine or car dominated street space.

Our front yard now basically serves as an entry for vehicle access.  The frontage normally contains the garage or garages and a six metre setback from the street to queue cars in the driveway.

This is a change from the “great Australian dream” home where a front garden took pride of place and provided a genuine connection to the street.  The back “yard” was for the dunny and the incinerator.

This lack of connection with the street has reduced our casual surveillance of the public space within it.  This can make the space feel lonely and less inviting than it might otherwise have been.

These streets are less fun to walk in and lessen the opportunity to meet other people.

Parents are reluctant to let their children engage with these spaces that are now designed for cars, not people.  They no longer walk or ride to school and hence don’t develop risk assessment ad independent mobility skills.

This may very well represent a massive lost opportunity.  Community space is rare. It is a valuable commodity which we all pay for in one way or another.  Streets are community space, some of which is used by cars; however we have virtually turned the whole space over to cars.

The potential community value of streets is therefore much diminished and unrealised, and often has to be replaced with park space and the like which comes with an expensive purchase, development and maintenance price tag.

The way our houses have turned their back on streets also impacts on the way vehicles relate to the space.  With no people in the streets, using them and enjoying them, they don’t elicit from car drivers any respect for the space. Instead, drivers are induced by the lack of activity to drive faster than they otherwise might.

Our reaction as humans is then to stay inside or in the backyard where there are no cars to contend with and where casual surveillance occurs by virtue of our increased presence.

There are, however, two issues with this. Firstly, with our increasing house sizes on smaller lots, backyard space is often taken up by hardstand paving squeezed in next to a swimming pool.

Secondly, backyard play without involving the neighbourhood kids, passers-by, the dog from down the street and Mr Wilkins on his way home from work is not as inviting.

We are tempted to blame electronic games for drawing our children inside, however electronic games are filling the void created by the loss of street based play that is linked to different street design and house design realities.

It is not lazy kids who have induced the electronic game phenomenon, it is a market gap created by the art of street design being lost, and a resulting need to be entertained indoors.

There are obvious health issues that are becoming evident from children having this more sedentary lifestyle. We are now the fattest nation on the planet, and our next generation of children will have life expectancy shorter than ours due to obesity and its associated impacts of heart disease and early onset diabetes.

It is true that there are elements of our current land use and street patterns that people appreciate.  They can drive their car at will with impediments to free flowing car traffic designed out wherever possible.  Roundabouts give priority to cars and pedestrians and cyclists are encouraged to take other routes to enable a “safer” environment where cars don’t have to risk interaction with people.

We have given our streets over to cars without a second thought as to the consequences – all of which are significant.

We need to change our streets and our attitude to streets.  They are our most valuable community space. It will require many years work to reclaim our streets for people.  If we don’t start today, it will be many years plus one more day.

Just the other day a very experienced professional urbanist described a good street to me.  He said it is any street where the cricket playing kids only have to move off the street every over or so, at the most, to let a car past…are there any left?

Steven Burgess

Steven Burgess is the prinicipal consultant (Placemaking) at MRCagney, a global transport and planning consultancy. He is a engineer and urban strategist and  has managed a range of projects in the transport and urban redevelopment sectors for more than 20 years.

He is running two workshops on placemaking, one  at Surry Hills in Sydney on Tuesday, 8 May, entitled “Nice Plan, Pity About the Place” and another (co-hosted) in Parramatta on 26 June, ” “The Lost Art of Street Design.

Details: https://mrcagney.com/