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Observations from touring Canada and the USA

Streets are much more than a simple mechanism that takes people from A to B.

Designing liveable streets

Observations from touring Canada and the USA

Streets are much more than a simple mechanism that takes people from A to B. When designed as streets (not roads) they become key places of social and economic wellbeing. Whilst on a business trip with these thoughts in mind I wanted to see what lessons in design and delivery both good and bad, I could share, which may help us here in Australia and New Zealand.

We are genuinely, through our planning and engineering standards, building places we don’t really like.

Currently, I’m half way through a semi-sabbatical around Canada, USA and even a short visit to Mexico. Aside from a few speaking events, I have had opportunities to really observe some interesting cities. I mean really ‘stop and smell the roses’, not rushing between meetings or commuting in and out. Staying in, living and breathing some great downtowns.

There is an obvious renewed professional urgency about CBD’s or downtowns. The interesting this has been observing how populations, different demographics are responding to this in different cities. People of all ages are rediscovering downtowns everywhere, which is a great enabling characteristic. This enthusiasm creates a favourable economic environment. City interest leads to city pride, which leads to more locals using their own downtown, not just for work, but to shop socialise and gather.

This where modern tourism and social media provide new opportunities. People visit places that other people like. Now more than ever we are interested in a genuine local experience. We will of course tick the big items off our list, but we want to do what locals do, taste what they taste, live where they live, catch the streetcar they catch. Not a cleansed or isolated ‘bubble’ experience.

Using whatever platform you like, you can ask thousands of strangers, both locals and visitors where the best breakfast taco is in Austin, the best gym for casual use in Vancouver or even the best Margarita in Juarez. This can only happen though if there is a local market. That is local people out enjoying their own city. A very common expression I have heard on my travels is a variation on ‘…lots of people go here, but my secret little spot is …. It’s a little bit out of the way but its great…’. So of course, I go there, and not surprisingly there is often a queue. The local ‘secret’ has gone viral. The massive advantage in being the local ‘go-to’ is amplified by our ‘new’ access to that information. It’s a secret that makes you famous.

These local icons crop up from time to time for a variety of reasons from time to time. From the Wine Larder in Brighton, Australia to the Lone Horse Bar in Marfa Texas These places are local icons, that people travel a long way to experience. They are local economic generators. They have been prospering in cities for many years, sometimes through curation, but often despite it. City shapers need to tap into this. It cant continue to be that the only places people like are the ones that managed to get around the planning rules designed to stop them.

Docklands in Melbourne is a deliberately, maybe even extensively planned urban renewal venture in Melbourne Australia, but is still yet to come in to its own and it might even be a couple of generations before it becomes a genuine preferred choice as a people place. I don’t think anyone tells their visiting cousin from Toronto to head down to their secret favourite place at Docklands. Not yet anyway. They send them to the National Gallery , to QV Market , to the Block arcade .

We are genuinely, through our planning and engineering standards, building places we don’t really like. I get a bit distressed when I hear claims that this is to suit institutional developers, which I completely reject. Institutional developers are good at reacting to planning conditions and creating a market based around what they are allowed to develop. They don’t develop to a market, they develop what they are allowed to develop.

We know what people friendly places look like. Narrow traffic lanes (< 9’ or 3m) small or zero setbacks, street trees, and a variety of land uses in a walkable catchment. We like articulated frontages with clear widows with things to look at and with people looking at us. It’s very simple wouldn’t you agree?

From time to time I do street design masterclasses, mostly for local government. One of the typical occurrences (well pretty much at every class) is when we start looking at and discussing our favourite streets. The difficulty comes when, having identified the streets that they like the best, explaining why today, we wouldn’t let anybody build a street like that. The answer thrown up is that that our current standards (often road design standards, not street design standards) won’t let us build them like that. That might be a reason, but it is not an excuse. Let’s be clear, standards are there to guide you. Basically, if you don’t know what you are doing, at least don’t make it any worse than this minimum design. But that doesn’t mean they all have to be ‘minimum’! You are allowed to make them better! Tighter radii on corners, smaller setbacks, narrower lanes are an improvement on the standard. They are not sub-standard.

You don’t need special permission to do something good. You are allowed to make a place that your community likes, and will create a real adventure for your visitors. You know how to do it, so enough talk, enough excuses, lets crack on and build some streets we actually like!

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