I've never really thought about who owns the streets before, I have to admit. Have you? But when you do think about it, we do. In fact, our streets aren't only owned by us, in many places they're also the bulk of our public space. (Chicago's streets represent 23% of land area and 70% of public space.)  And, in places that are becoming more and more dense - something I love - that public space is key; after all, we've traded off the private space to get it. 

So this is the context in which I'm listening to Victor Dover and John Massengale present at CNU 21, who are about to launch a book later in the year, called STREET DESIGN - the secret of great cities and towns. In the book - and here - they're challenging the notion of the complete street, arguing that complete doesn't mean it's a great place.

They're preceded in that with a short talk by Urbsworks' Marcy McInelly, who makes the point that streets are public space with a civic role to fufill, that we need a more democratic allocation of the street space, that streets and buildings work together to define the public realm; they contribute equally.  Form based codes, she argues, are helping create a more cohesive way of achieving this when for so long they have been separated to the detriment of place. After all, public rooms that are formed by buildings.

In addition, walking is the fundamental unit of street and network design. As a result, human scale - and beauty - is important as we reclaim the most important function of our streets which is walking. You thought streets were about cars, right? Think again.

When John Massengale takes the podium he opens with the statement that three pictures really are worth a thousand words. We see Broadway back in the day - with no striping, no signals, no signs, streetcars and lots of people, We see New York today. We see Main Street Nantucket as it used to be too.

Looking at Main Street he points out that at 85 feet across it's big enough to be a place but narrow enough to see across. He notes that engineers don't like "fixed vegetative containment zones" - trees in other words - but that here, they contain the street. He follows its curves and says that one way to address topography is to lay a blanket on top of it; another is to pretend you have no earth moving equipment, and let the road vary with the topography.

Going back to New York, Massengale points out that it was the first 'complete street' in New York; a place where 80%of New Yorkers don't own a car.Here though, we have a suburban arterial through the middle of New York, designed for the 20% at the expense of New Yorkers. "It's a one way road designed for throughput," he says. "It's signed at 35mph but to beat the light cycles, people regularly go at 40 or 45 mph."

While the space here is designed around throughput - there's nothing here about the public realm for people who don't have cars - Massengale acknowledges that there's much that the Department of Transport has got right, when you consider Madison Square, the city's bike lanes, and the bike share which just started this week.

Massengale points to other examples that demonstrate the fact that a complete street is not necessarily being a great place: 9th Street, NY and a street in Long Beach California: "When you see these arrows you know you're not in a people space, you're in an auto space," he says.

He goes on. "We're not talking but about going back to the Broadway of the past, but let's not forget it. It's a place where cars go slowly; it's not dominated by the detritus of traffic engineers."

If people drive more slowly, they're not likely to kill you. "Go slower, see more," he says.

Victor Dover: 4 remarks on street design


Bringing up the rear of this trio, Dover really just made me want to read the book. I'll content myself here, with the highlights of Dover's four remarks on street design. But first, an assertion: Even the best cities are overrun by traffic. Something to remember, as we think about great streets and places. 

Revisiting and seeing anew places and streets all around the world, Massengale and Dover asked themselves, among other questions, what has happened in the best street retrofits? We see Kensington High St which had been transformed from an auto sewer into a vibrant, much visited place. But the thing to notice is the mInimal colour, the minimal stripes, the minimal signals. Bear this idea of 'less' in mind as we go forward.

1. On networks: "When there are a lot of streets and intersections the game changes fundamentally." Suddenly you have lots of alternative routes, and lots of opportunities for different types of streets - and as a result, different experiences. (See RobertsDay on Vine for the video about this.)

2. On one-way streets: "We fight against this...BUT. You can do it, IF you have a large network of streets. Skinny is sexy and property values go up when streets are skinny."

3. On pedestrian streets: There's been an over-implementation of the ped. mall. But it can work like it does in Charleston, to deal with large blocks, and to deal with topography." (And even Melbourne got a mention! "Melbourne's beauty is it's small streets," Dpver says.)  His message is also to 'pedestrianise' creatively - do it at different parts of the day for instance.

4. On street space: "We still think of the street as a tube of space; extruded like a dimensionally accurate piece of steel." And while regularity gives order to a city we also need to look at where the vista goes. "If it's a room, it doesn't just have two walls." Dover shows us Galena and how the slightest curve helps the street conclude; becomes a series of spatial experiences that are linked.

Looking at the great streets and laces around the world, there's a  regular rhythm to the events; something happens to end one segment and start another. "Even in places where repetition is used to signal order, or the dominance of the state, or the rational workings of the nation, even those places have that; a series of experiences," he says.

Remember that when you're arguing with the traffic engineer, he advise. "This segment doesn't have to be treated as you treat the rest."

You can read an interview with Massingdale and Dover about the book here, and find out more about making streets great places here.