Are Roads The New Urban Frontier?

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014
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The notion may seem crazy on so many levels but are we experiencing roads 2.0?

 Over the past 12 months, in Sydney alone, we have seen several initiatives with a focus on diversifying the humble ‘road’ from a car-centric, homogenous, tar-like landscape to something more sophisticated; a more dynamic space that celebrates urbanity.

While the revitalisation of ‘streets’ has occupied much discussion and action over the past few decades, ‘roads’ are just getting started. In 2013, Transport NSW released its Long Term Transport Master Plan for public comment.

The Master Plan looks at diversifying modes of transport (including greater options for road users) and cutting congestion while supporting Sydney’s global city status. Not surprisingly, cycling is considered within the Master Plan and aligns with recent efforts by the City of Sydney to support citizens making the switch to the bike as their primary mode of transport. Since March 2010, the number of bike trips made in the city centre has grown by 110 per cent and is consistent with other cities around the world participating in this road renaissance.

If the Master Plan (and similar policies) were on one side of the road, on the other would be community-led initiatives bringing with them renewed grass roots enthusiasm for more diverse roadscapes. This enthusiasm, encouraged by an ever connected world and ever expanding system of communication platforms, has seen road based projects with a DIY twist popping up right across the city.

Now in its 6th year in Sydney, but originally from San Francisco, PARK(ing) Day (a temporary ‘renting’ of car spaces and in their place creation of popup people parks) was carried out at various locations throughout the city. The event was also supported by Leichhardt Council, the first Council in Sydney to officially do so, to highlight the potential of roads as not only serving the needs of the car but also through some clever adaptive reuse, to meet the needs of people.

In a similar vein but with a focus on longer term change, Phil Stubbs organised Sydney’s first Better Block at Clovelly Road. The initiative saw thousands turn out for the 24-hour event which occupied a block but kept the street open for traffic. Those that turned out for the day witnessed design ideas being tested, measured and analysed, true to the nature of Better Block as a form of Tactical Urbanism. The event received much attention and has provided rigorous feedback to Randwick City Council of the day’s activities.

As locals from Clovelly wait to see what comes from the Better Block, their neighbours over at Bondi Junction are already enjoying the benefits of a DIY ethos to improved road design.

The Bondi Junction Complete Streets Project is part of a strategy to enhance the vibrancy of the area through temporary interventions that build on the PARK(ing) Day premise. The project’s lead consultant, Roberts Day, in collaboration with Waverley Council, navigated complex logistical matters with Roads and Maritime Services authority and Sydney buses. Launching in September, this project identified several popups through the town centre that have helped to cultivate behaviour change and encourage different modes of transport in a safe and stimulating environment. The project realises the untapped potential of the road, dismisses its perceived one dimensional nature, and turns a space into a place.

The ‘road’, a word synonymous with modernity, sprawl and suburban lifestyle, is no longer the evil twin of the ‘street.’ Roads are entering a golden age of renewed interest, their potential as malleable design spaces and economic catalysts proving too delicious to ignore.

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