arch-peace editorials

24 July 2010

On the Street

At the moment, I am in Germany, doing some research on streets, visiting some streets in Frankfurt and reading about German street design and street users. Taking a break even for a few days from working as an architect and teaching, I have been able to step back and think about Architects for Peace. This editorial aims to address how the streets research might relate to the interests of the Architects for Peace readership. On the anniversary of the 7/7 bombings in London, it is also a reminder of the loss of many innocent citizens' lives in those attacks on transport users; ordinary people like us going about their everyday lives living with global and local tensions.

Fig 1 - A fairly conventional junction in the 'old city' of Frankfurt on the Main, at Münchenerstraße and Elbestraße, in Frankfurt's Railway Station quarter, a mixed use area including a red-light district.

The theme of streets may at first seem difficult to relate to Architects for Peace, but the literature I have been studying here, in the UK and in Australia (especially David Engwicht and traffic tamers in Australia) all seems to be concerned with relevant aims and processes; civility, reconciling the needs of diverse users, and making habitable, environmentally sustainable, safe and enjoyable street environments. That sounds like some kind of fragile state of peace for everyday life, one which, however unobtainable or idealistic, must be worth striving towards.

Our group is made up of ‘urban professionals promoting development based on social justice, solidarity, respect and peace’ – it is mainly people who work towards building better spaces, through education, advice and direct action. In the context of streets, the stakeholders we need to work with are especially diverse, we could even say as a whole, the opposite of the special populations or niche communities mentioned in last month’s editorial. Yet there are many special communities within that overall group, like the guide dog users I have been talking to and reading about. Streets are as much about use and activity as they are defined by ‘design’.

"Well-functioning, high-quality streets are not just a product of their planning and design; the way a street is operated and managed once built is just as important as its design" (New York City Department of Transport, Street Design Manual 2009)

Streets can be distinguished from roads as (aspiring) living spaces rather than mere movement corridors, and this distinction has variations in Australia, in Europe and elsewhere. Street Design can be seen as part of Urban Design, although it can relate to a very small residential grouping, and has not always been the interest or task of urban designers.

Arguably related more closely to architecture than engineering, urban design is the art and science of making places for people. Like architecture and planning, urban design works within an economic and political context. But ‘Urban Designer’ was a term unheard of until the 1980s. Urban design is employed in urban areas, where more than half of the world's populations now live. I have been doing my research in the department of Urban Design and Regeneration at the University of Westminster in London. I am currently calling my research "Occupying Streets: Urban Design and the political"; and the research will focus on design and the users of city streets. It is an area of design and urbanism research which spans between urban design, engineering, architecture, landscaping and social space.

Street Design processes, perhaps more than in Building Design, involve co-production, through cross-disciplinary collaborations and adaptations of the methodologies of diverse design disciplines. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of publications of high-level guidelines and manuals for street design. Cities including London, New York and San Francisco have each published new guidelines on Street Design. As noted in the Architects for Peace website, an Australian group has recently sought to emulate CABE the Commission for Architecture and Built Environment in the UK, which has supported urban initiatives but whose future is uncertain.

Practical street design guides and some new theoretical studies reinforce many of the newly established practices and sub-disciplines of street design, where although the field is continually developing, there is a general move towards sharing streets rather than segregation. There are some exciting and controversial new developments in ‘shared space’ and the design of mixed-use streets in Europe, which have developed from Dutch and Danish models (Fig 2). References to models like Barcelona for its streets and ramblas suggest there are aspirations to continental European models in Britain, as well as considerable variation in attitudes and practices between Britain and continental Europe. Part of my research plan is to compare case studies of inner city streets in London and in Frankfurt. In the light of increased urbanisation and urban densification internationally, there is developing interest in the design of mixed use streets, and design for all hours.(1)

Fig 2. A residential shared surface street or 'Home Zone' known as a 'Begegnungsstraße', in Rotlintstraße in the leafy Nordend urban district of Frankfurt.

New kinds of physical designs of streets – and also diverse methods of participative working on street designs with their users – have evolved in the contexts of changing institutional and professional frameworks, of activism and of changing stakeholder roles. Urban Design skills are being promoted as part of an agenda aimed at creating more sustainable communities in the UK.(2)

Rationalising and modernising city streets in the twentieth century often emphasised circulation and motorised movement and services, but in the decades since the 1960s, and in the first decade of the new millennium, there has been increasing advocacy by groups supporting the interests of pedestrians and other localised and slow users, invoking also social and ecological sustainability. Street design practice has become far more place-making oriented than it was a few decades ago.(3)

Although the interest in speed and efficiency are still there, stakeholders and advocacy groups are calling for calmer, 'slower' street space, for better quality living or dwelling space, and for improved street ‘ambiance’.(4) Jane Jacobs’ widely cited ideas about reviving city streets have been both adopted and developed by planners, transforming the profession into being increasingly citizen-led.(5) Jacobs’ ideas are also sometimes criticised for their ethnic limitations, based on a homogeneous urban culture.(6) "Urban ecology" was developed as an approach by Stanford Anderson and MIT’s American Institute of Urban Studies in the 1970s, as a theory of understanding streets.(7) Yet architects’ approaches like this one have also been criticised for tending to romanticise the edgy ambiance of inner city mixed use streets.(8)

Paving carriageways in cities was the historical technology which transformed roads into streets, as the Romans had done for chariots, and making them more densely habitable and attractive to build up as a space. Some authors writing about city design have also identified the change from a roads-based approach to a streets-based approach to urban design; balancing the 'link' and 'place' characteristics of streets, between a through space and a space for dwelling.(9)

The practices of building or upgrading streets mushroomed in the nineteenth century, parallel with increased bicycle use, even before motor car use. Hard paving was transformative for early bicycle use, even in Detroit, which later became the 'Motor City'. The busiest pre-motorised city streets were already dangerous, as pedestrians shared with horses and bicycles. But as they began to share the streets with motorised traffic in the early twentieth century, there was a significant new effect on the ambiance of mixed-use streets, and a rapid increase in documented injuries and deaths. The proliferation of motor vehicles in a centre like London – with no driver licensing or speed regulation – prompted the formation of the Pedestrians Association in 1929 (now Living Streets) and in Germany in 1985, Fuß eV pedestrian association. The developing disciplines of urban planning and urban design began to separate designated uses according to speeds on the street, so that in western cities, residential life was increasingly separated from work and commerce.

A new hierarchy of street user importance, with the pedestrian paramount, but which also challenges standardisation and which promotes a ‘bottom up’ democracy, has noticeably contributed to the profile of pedestrians and liveable urban space and place.(10) Some urban designers like Ben Hamilton-Baillie have suggested, following the Dutch ‘Woonerf’ models tested since the seventies, that removing traffic signals from some streets helps to bring the negotiation of urban space "back to basics".(11)

In modernising the city, there has been some conflict between highway engineering on one hand, with urban environmental design on the other. The development of street design practice in the public realm has also coincided in the last decade with the emergence of the idea and policies of the ’24-hour city’, associated with a lively ‘ambiance’ in mixed-use streets, particularly ‘out of office hours’ in the evening economy in European cities.(12)

The proposed research aims to contribute to knowledge and literature on streets and street design by investigating the field’s multi-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary practices, and interpreting its complex documented outcomes. Certainly, it will highlight the importance of returning to first design principles – experiencing and analysing streets at first hand, and developing tools from direct engagement. These principles will be applied to understanding and designing mixed-use streets, challenging hierarchical approaches to users and needs. The research aims to expose potential for activism and professional agency in accommodating diverse needs of stakeholders. Given the complex set of regulatory frameworks, standards and guidelines pertinent to street design, the overview and understanding of design ought to remain transparent and multivalent for a diverse set of users. Standardisation and empirical design principles alone as an approach cannot fully address the desirable design characteristics of complex, inner city mixed use streets.

Gregory Cowen
Architects for Peace, July 2010

1: Designing Mixed-Use Streets; Jones, Roberts & Morris 2007, Planning the Night-Time City; Marion Roberts and Adam Eldridge, 2009
2: Capacity Check Online: Urban Design Skills 2008.
3: Link and Place; Jones, Boujenko, Marshall 2007.
4: Department for Transport Manual for Streets 2007, This Way to Better Streets; Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment 2009.
5: The Death and Life of Great American Cities; Jane Jacobs 1961
6: Is there Still Life in 'the Death and Life..'?; (review) Montgomery 1998
7: On Streets; S. Anderson ed. 1978
8: Livable Streets: D. Appleyard 1979 p.242-4
9: Link and Place; Jones, Boujenko and Marshall 2007.
10: CABE 2008, DfT Manual for Streets 2007, NYC DOT 2009.
11: Department for Transport 2009, Ben Hamilton-Baillie: .
12: 24-Hour Cities; Lovatt, ed. 1994, 24-Hour Soho; Comedia 1991, Home Office 2004, Planning the Night Time City; Roberts and Eldridge 2009
19: Link and Place; Jones, Boujenko & Marshall 2007.


Beatriz Maturana said...

A very interesting editorial Gregory. I think that you have touched on at least 2 important points. First is the notion that the topic of your editorial may not be of interest to architects (Architects for Peace) and second regards the notion that the urban design is something relatively new and that the term “But ‘Urban Designer’ was a term unheard of until the 1980s”.
On both accounts I take a non-Anglo perspective, which indeed may represent a rather large part of the profession.
I would just like to suggest another perspective (at least consider); a non Anglo perspective that has for centuries integrated the notion of urban "urbanism"(urbanismo) to teaching and practice of architecture.

In Spanish and other Latin languages, "urban" concepts are not new (or a new fad). They belong to the culture, the tradition and are commonly used by the general public. Included in political language, history, in the name of ministerial departments (Obras públicas, transporte y urbanismo), the name of faculties (architecture and urbanism).

The term 'urban' and all its derivates are natural to the Spanish language and architectural practice/studies, yet, some of these terms have no translation to English. For instance, the term "urbanist" (urbanista--the person whose work focuses on city), while sometimes used, it does not exist in the English language. Urbanist is different from a planner (which is a much more Anglo concept and has a different focus). In Spanish you will also find the term “paisajista”, widely used to mean ‘urbanista’-- although the direct translation refers to landscape is not a landscape architect.

Urbanism is not (in the Spanish trad.) necessarily linked to the term "design", it conveys much more and urbanists (who are architects specialised the city) work as part of multidisciplinary teams). All students in Chile, Brazil and Spain a (and I dare to say much of non-Anglo education trad.) have urban studies as an integral part of the curricula (always)—with “urban studies” as subjects and also integral to design studios (not only focused on the architectural object but involving the city).

Architecture studies (Spanish version) and English version are not the same thing and the evidence is in the curricula, which is similar in most of the American countries (no Anglo). See for example University Polytechnic of Barcelona: ).

Examples can be found in literature (sorry I won’t have the chance to find this right now), also in the names of the faculties: : “estudios urbanos” and an entire education stream (in architecture) called City studies.

What I find interesting is that in English speaking countries the introduction of urban studies comes accompanied of the term “design”, which signals something different—not sure what yet.

My concern is that in the Anglo speaking world the term has been "re"-invented, and in the process diminishing, disregarding and obliterating the knowledge (and acknowledgment) that comes from other parts of the world. This is no news of course, but I think we should be aware.
All this to say (going back to the first point), that ‘city’ is of incumbency of architects, in fact, for much of the non-Anglo profession, city is the objective.

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