Le Corbusier with Oscar Niemeyer, Raymond Hood, and a host of other international architects in New York, 1940s. Image: The Charnel-House

Our streets are boring. We’re treated like idiots. Our streets have become a tool of control in service to the machine. Our cities, and our souls, deserve better.

Take a moment to think of your favourite street in Australia. It might be a charming neighbourhood street, the local high street, or somewhere you like to visit at the weekend. 

Now think about some of your favourite streets anywhere in the world. You might be fortunate enough to have experienced these firsthand, or perhaps you’ve seen some portrayed in movies or online. Think about the qualities of these places – what makes it appeal to you. Odds are that these streets contrast starkly to the majority of those that you encounter in your day-to-day life in Australia. 

A key point of difference between the streets that we love and those that we forget is their ability to connect with us on some deeper level – to invite us to stay, to socialise, and to make our own. Most streets across Australia however aren’t designed as places for people to do any of these things. Their utilitarian design doesn’t connect with us, lift us up, or make us feel welcome. They’re designed as places to move people, and that’s about it.

And while we’re not able to articulate all the solutions to this dilemma in a single article, we believe that broadening the conversation is part of working toward a solution. So, here we go.

The death of the street

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the artistic, political, and philosophical movement of Modernism came to prominence as both the cause and result of broader transformations in Western society. With it came the mass production of affordable cars, and the city was thus reconceived as a “machine,” with cars servicing that machine and streets reconceptualised as utilitarian spaces that exist purely for the efficient movement and storage of those cars.

“We must kill the street. We shall truly enter into modern town planning only after we have accepted this preliminary determination.” – Le Corbusier

The primacy of the Modernist reorganisation of street space was that efficiency, separation, standards, and the like, would ensure streets could best serve cities and their citizens in a safe and convenient (or “efficient”) way. Reflecting on a century of car-centric design, we can see that this is false – or at the very least that this idea relies on a narrow understanding of what is optimal. 

What Modernism promised vs what it’s delivered. General Motors “Futurama” exhibition at the 1939 New York World’s Fair (left) and Brisbane’s Cultural Centre bus station (right). Images: Wikimedia Commons, Wongm’s Rail Gallery.

The specialisation of street design

Modernism favoured separation, promoting specialisation and an approach to design in which form followed function. With the street’s function redefined to prioritise automobility, responsibility for its design was transferred to the domain of engineering. The other constituent functions of the urban street – built form, public space, social life, and so on – would be jettisoned, as the disciplines involved in their planning and design (architecture and landscape architecture) also became separately professionalised, divorced from their complementary professions, and financially siloed.Broken your leg? Call a doctor. Got a leaky pipe? Call a plumber. Live on a shit street? Call an engineer, who will prescribe standards, separate travel modes, cut down your trees (for clear zones of course), and ensure you’re moving safely and efficiently (if you’re in a car).

Modernism’s division of the street. Image: Marshall, S. 2005. Streets and Patterns, as cited in Guerrero, S. 2007. Planning Policy and Landscape Architecture: Street Design in Theory and Practice.

With little understanding of risk compensation theory – or even the belief that people are capable of making the right decisions for themselves or for others – we have gone about assigning everyone to what we think of as their correct place on the street.

And so, pedestrians are pushed onto a shitty footpath. Motorists get the middle bit. And in an exciting recent development, cyclists are sometimes given a miniature highway all of their own. Trees? Maybe, in some of the leftover space (probably without the soil they need to grow). And what about spaces to sit, meet, or play? Unfortunately, these elements do not have a place in the best practice streets of today. 

In assigning everyone a place and trying to control all movement, we ignore the complex layering of social interactions that public spaces – including streets – require. Even spaces that are designed to merge all forms of transport, so-called “shared zones”, have been bastardised by the Modernist mindset of putting up signs and blindly applying standards.

The street is instead a tool of control in service to the machine.

Poynton, Cheshire town centre before and after shared space upgrades. Image: Poynton Regenerated, available at https://youtu.be/-vzDDMzq7d0

Furthermore, by fragmenting the component parts of street design, someone forgot to take responsibility for the street as a whole – for its role in the social life of our neighbourhoods and culture of our cities. Our streets lack purpose other than movement. There is little sense of vision, or capacity for change.

Why is this relevant now?

The upheaval in urban life experienced during the pandemic has renewed focus on some aspects of designing our cities, such as walking and cycling infrastructure, access to local open space, streets as shared spaces, and “future transport” opportunities. While at first glance these efforts seem like a step in the right direction, we must reflect on this period more carefully than those progressives responsible for the vanilla-isation of Modernist urban and transport planning. After all, the dispersed landscapes and sterile places created by the Modernists were delivered with the best of intentions – most of the time.

It must have looked better on plan – Modernism in Brasilia. Image: Gehl Architects.

As it stands, the street design initiatives that we hold up as best practice today, as being the key to addressing those urban issues highlighted by the pandemic, amount to a polishing of the turd that is 20th century street design. 

Whether it’s the big picture stuff, like the fragmentation of street design professions, or the nuts and bolts of particular issues, like our ill-conceived approach walking and cycling, we need to do better. By recognising that street design is more than just an exercise in geometry and the application of rules that whisk people from place to place as quickly as possible, we have an opportunity to reinvent the 21st century street fit for the challenges that lay ahead.

Are we making the same mistakes?

Take a closer look at active transport – that’s walking and cycling – to see how things have developed. 

It’s refreshing to see active transport finally recognised in transport planning. Yet, in an eerily similar manner to 20th century automobility planning, contemporary bicycle plans focus primarily on moving people from A to B. Planned regional bicycle routes are shown criss-crossing our metropolitan areas in glossy publications, with the intention of providing quick and efficient cycling connections to and through the hearts of our village and city centres.Is a new network of bicycle highways really going to expand urban cycling beyond the predominantly affluent, middle-aged, bum-slapping man club that it currently is? If local trips are seen as the biggest opportunity for getting more people walking and cycling, why are we focused on bicycle highways at a regional scale instead of slow, safe, active streets at the local scale?

A Safe Active Street in Perth, Western Australia. Image: City of South Perth

The reductive term “active transport” also glosses over the multiple experiences of the city that walking and cycling provides, and the reasons why people walk or ride a bike. This has led to the proliferation of bicycle highways that risk creating a generation of two-wheeled motorists, whereas one of the key benefits of the bicycle is that it allows people to get about while also allowing the street to serve other purposes

Are we all idiots?

From the moment we leave our houses, we obey the commands of signs, lines, and lights. We mindlessly move through the city in streams of traffic, numb to the outside world. We are told precisely how to use many of the spaces we encounter, deprived of the freedom to explore it for ourselves. There is no time to linger, no time to enjoy the place we are in, no time to hang out. The street is about movement, and we are nothing but cogs in the machine that is the city. 

But we need to see the street for what it is – a complex system of relationships between different actors, each with different priorities, motivations, distractions, and skills. This complex system can’t be predicted, modelled, or neatly packaged up. It can’t be rationalised into segregated lanes. It can’t be standardised. 

As we’ve alluded to already, we’re not going to solve it all in one article – but there’s a whole world of solutions out there. For starters, we can create streets and shared spaces that don’t treat people like idiots. We can cultivate a cycling culture that is accessible, casual, and inclusive. We can build nearly car free areas at the street, block, or neighbourhood scale. We can elevate the status of children in city-building to help them gain a sense of themselves as urban citizens. We can treat trees as the critical infrastructure that they are, like we do pits and pipes. Each of these ideas needs unpacking and translating to an Australian context, but the point is that there is no singular response to our idiot streets.

As it stands, we’re served vanilla flavoured street-cream from a Modernist ice cream truck, and we lap it up like obedient puppies. 

Isn’t it time we tried a few different flavours?

Jason Packenham

Jason is a landscape architect and urbanist working and writing in urban mobility and public space. More by Jason Packenham

Will Smith

Associate landscape architect

ASPECT Studios

Will Smith is an associate landscape architect at ASPECT Studios and an advocate for better streets. More by Will Smith

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  1. ‘fragmenting the component parts of street design, someone forgot to take responsibility for the street as a whole’. Although the authors’ focus is different from mine, the article’s discussion of fragmentation of procurement, design, delivery, and responsibility of streets resonates with my work/research focus on ‘people with disabilities’ built environment accessibility experience at neighbourhood scale’. As the authors say ‘we [all] need to do better’ – this can only happen if we meaningfully engage across all sectors and disciplines and embrace ‘working together with’ all built environment users.

  2. Very timely article. Yes most people are idiots, and even when presented with an opportunity to improve an otherwise bland street, by including active transport options, traffic calming, landscaping etc. without losing any of the amenity, they will fight it tooth and nail. (Referring to North Brisbane Bike Path.) The whole issue has me baffled.