In the design of towns and cities across the globe, we are increasingly seeing a transition in the way people think about movement. There is a growing realisation of the power that movement and transport have in unlocking opportunities to improve quality of life. This article explores the potential our streets have in improving liveability, health, affordability, economy, and in tackling the climate crisis.
Venn Street Public Realm Improvement by Urban Movement
Streets need to continue to be the democratic heart of communities and neighbourhoods, combating urban loneliness and isolation. We need investment in our streets to enable active travel, because inactivity is killing over five million people every year globally, and ruining many more lives.
Plans for transportation or public realm enhancement, and initiatives like the government’s Town Centre First programme, are delivering real and tacit change in the Irish context, creating the conditions whereby towns and cities can really thrive. With this increasing realisation and attention given to the power that transport can yield, when it comes to thinking about and setting a brief for transport changes, I think it is important to understand what makes a place ambitious.
Firstly, the places we have previously designed, the places we have created and are living in, have defined our culture. This is because the urban settlements in which we live affect our behaviour, and behaviour over time becomes culture. If we live in a town where the only way to get to the shops with any joy, dignity or ease is to drive, then that behaviour starts to define our urban experience; driving becomes, simply, what we do. A key issue here to consider, however, is that when designers of the built environment look to improve options for moving in an urban context, some people can see it as an attack on their culture. We have seen these kind of reactions globally in recent times around Low-Traffic Neighbourhoods and 15-minute cities.
To move forward, we need to reflect more on the fact that transport is a tool for us, for people and society. It should be a servant to our quality of life rather than defining us and our urban experience. The shaping of our towns, cities, and urban areas must be governed by the maximum return on investment yieldable from the space we have available, both for individual people and broader society.
That said, investment in our public realm, in our streets specifically, is uniquely placed to target an enormously broad set of issues and deliver large returns against policy objectives. In other aspects of society we do not accept poor investment of assets, so we shouldn’t accept poor investment in our streets. Investment in streets can – and must – help us better manage surface water, reducing flooding and protecting habitats. It can target the urban heat-island effect, making better places to live. Streets need to continue to be the democratic heart of communities and neighbourhoods, combating urban loneliness and isolation. We need investment in our streets to enable active travel, because inactivity is killing over five million people every year globally, and ruining many more lives. Investment in streets is needed to tackle the affordability crisis; in the last quarter of 2022, 86% of UK adults said they were concerned about day-to-day living costs; just over half (54%) said they are very concerned. However, last year the average cost of owning a car was €3,500 a year in the UK – or upwards of €6,000 for those with car finance . With around 20% of people in the UK having no access to a car whatsoever, investment in our streets needs to target the eradication of transport poverty, making sure that everyone has access to opportunity in their lives, and that access is not predicated on owning a car.
Coupled with community, health, and mobility imperatives, we need investment in streets to yield economic benefits for our neighbourhoods and struggling high streets. When more space is given over to people; for spending time, walking, and cycling – and less to cars – the absence of customers arriving by car is more than compensated by people arriving on foot or by bike. For example, in San Francisco, the first trial ‘parklet’ increased pedestrian traffic in the area by 37% on weeknights and increased people walking at the weekend by 350%. A similar scheme in London increased takings in an adjacent shop by 20% .
The term ‘Climate Urbanism’ describes the way in which we think and act in urban areas under climate change, something we are all engaged with. ‘Climate Justice’ is the link between climate changes and social, civil, and human equity. Streets are on the front line of delivering climate justice, repairing our relationship with the environment and improving quality of life. Looking forward, we need to view our streets and transport systems as the valuable assets they are – moving away from historical views of streets as simply movement corridors – to ensure that streets are delivering a public good at the very least.
This is why programmes like the aforementioned Town Centre First are so important, giving towns and urban areas the opportunity to (re)think the way people can move about, to (re)set quality of life outcomes. Recently our practice have worked to do this at the city scale in Glasgow – developing a ten-year regeneration framework – as well as at the town scale in Roscrea, Co.Tipperary, with O’Mahony Pike Architects. Looking at the public realm and transport aspects, projects like this allow us to work with communities and afford us the space to ask, ‘What If?‘; to envision a future town or city with better a quality of life, delivering on the investment opportunities available, and developing a step by step action plan to deliver it. These strategies (re)frame the conversation so that we’re not thinking about what we might lose from making changes to our streets and spaces, rather we’re thinking about what we are losing right now in not innovating, and what we’ll be losing in the future from being left behind.
‘Climate Justice’ is the link between climate changes and social, civil, and human equity. Streets are on the front line of delivering climate justice, repairing our relationship with the environment and improving quality of life.
Future Reference is a time capsule. It features opinion-pieces that cover the current developments, debates, and trends in the built environment. Each article assesses its subject through a particular lens to offer a different perspective. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Future Reference is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.
Christopher Martin is an urban designer and planner working internationally to help communities improve their public spaces. He also supports cities and leaders to develop strategy, change policies, and make great places possible. He is Co-Founder and Director of Urban Strategy at Urban Movement, with over 18 years’ experience leading complex urban projects at all scales that address human connection, social equity, and climate repair. Christopher is also a trustee of Living Streets and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Sign up to our newsletter to stay up to date with our most recent articles and publications.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.