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The Making of
Great Streets

If longevity is the mark of a great street, Oxford Street* in London would probably win the prize.  The street was originally a Roman road, and its survival is testament to what early masters the Romans were of creating public infrastructure.

Ask a lay person what makes a great street and they might have trouble answering.  But they may easily be able to name a few of their favourite streets or at least a street they “like” whether in their home town or a city somewhere else. Various elements such as wide promenades to ramble along, mosaic tiles, trees, room to move around and an interesting combination of architecture and shelter all come into play.

At David Lock Associates we have been doing some research on the making of great streets and leveraging public infrastructure and have published a report on the subject**. In the report we provide a framework of ideas and guidance to facilitate the development of high quality urban spaces, streets and associated infrastructure.

The report borrows heavily from the work of Allan B. Jacobs and his work on streets and boulevards. In particular his titles ‘Great Streets’ (MIT Press, 1993) and ‘The Boulevard Book’ (MIT Press, 2002).

In his book Great Streets Jacobs says: “There is magic to Great Streets”, and we couldn’t agree more. This seminal work provides an insight into what can be considered as the most important both physical and designable characteristics of the best streets.

If people are visually engaged, they will stay longer on the street and keep coming back. Different features such as light, movement, surface and material changes, design details and contrasting elements all combine to create visual interest.

Other features that make a great street can include well-organised and spaced street markets, a central promenade, wider footpaths and minimal traffic with a good separation of cars and pedestrians.

Leisurely walking in a safe environment will be encouraged by creating an appropriate street width to prevent overcrowding.

Physical comfort can be achieved by providing protection from the elements for the users of the street. By including features such as awnings, arcades, nature strips and street lights in the streetscape people will want to use and linger on the street.  Of course each street design will need to be adapted to suit the climate and locational characteristics of the environment.

Great streets also feature complementary elements that - although they do not need to necessarily match in design or era - need to go well together.  When streets feature complementary elements a sense of order and regularity is achieved. Some elements which can be included to “harmonise” the street and its surrounds are transitions in building heights, common themes in materials or styles and a consistency in particular design details.

Another essential element in creating great streets is definition of the street which is achieved both vertically and horizontally.  By developing a height to horizontal distance ratio of one to two in a street cross section a sense of definition is achieved. Closer building spacing better defines the street edge.

By including windows and doors in shop fronts and buildings, visibility through to the interior is provided. This results in a sense of what is going on behind the façade whilst giving actual transparency and light to the interior.                   

The final two factors that are necessary when creating great streets are maintenance and quality.  A poorly maintained street will not draw pedestrians.  All elements of the street need to be well maintained and generally kept clean and in working order – the trees, the footpaths, the buildings and surfaces are all elements that require regular maintenance and attention.

The appropriate use of materials, quality workmanship and an understanding of design can transform a street.

Other elements that add value and contribute to these essential building blocks can include tree placement, emphasizing the beginnings and endings of the street, providing diversity through different building types and creating well known places such as high amenity meeting and gathering points. 

Places where people can stop and enjoy the street, for meeting, eating and being entertained can be where the street bends or turns, at prominent corners and where other natural features are apparent.  

Trees and awnings provide shelter and contribute to a feeling of wellbeing, such as those in Clarendon Street in Melbourne. This makes the street more attractive to its users.

Special design features such as street lights, paving, seating and signage can be used to define the street and give it a unique identity – making it different to the streets that surround it. These design features can tie in with a theme or history in the area or introduce a new distinctiveness to the street. For example, a continuing pattern of mosaic street tiles, used in many streets in European countries such as Spain and Portugal, gives the street a grand appearance.

In The Boulevard Book, Jacobs talks of how the boulevards of Europe were “imported” to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, but the American preoccupation with destination and speed had caused a major decline of “the boulevard” in that country. 

Fortunately the decline of the European-style boulevard is now slowly being reversed – not just in the US but around the world. The attraction of great streets and their multitude of benefits are becoming more appreciated by the communities that use them as well as the professionals and governments who create them.

By David Klingberg

Image source: Flickr (rahull verma ) Creative Commons

*Oxford Street follows the route of a Roman road, the via Trinobantina, which linked Hampshire with Colchester and became one of the major routes in and out of the city.

**The Making of Great Streets – Leveraging Public Infrastructure, research paper, July 2014. 

urban design, walking, david lock associates

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