Our city streets are more than a way to travel between destinations. When planned right, they can contribute greatly to our sense of belonging.
I’m a city guy. I love cities.
Don’t get me wrong; I also love everything outside our cities – the bushland, natural areas, productive lands, the regions, towns, and all the bits in between.
My favourite driving experience is crossing the Great Dividing Range between Wagga Wagga and the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, where the Hume Highway winds and cuts its way through the rolling riverine landscape, rising and falling amongst the farmlands, with its big sky and the magnificent diversions through towns like Gundagai, Yass, Berrima and Moss Vale. It reinforces to me the size and sparseness of our island continent, the criticality of farming, the uniqueness of Australia. Though I usually only pass through it, I feel part of it.
But I love cities more.
Maybe it’s my inner Sydney upbringing. Maybe it was my exposure to the last vestiges of industrial production on Sydney’s harbour, when the foreshore sites of a scale and size that is breathtaking changed in a very short time. Maybe it was my childhood spent in sandstone-carved waterfront spaces, where streets were made to follow the ridges to avoid too much cut and fill engineering. Maybe it’s a passion for making cities better places. The landscape of our cities has changed.
Anyone under 25 has grown up with the Internet. There are expectations on the speed and the service. The massive expectation associated with 24-hour access to anything is driving change in a way the world has never seen. We’ve seen the ‘internet of things’ as a concept raise the prospect of a globally, constantly connected society. We’ve also seen ‘localism’ rise in popularity, almost as a counter to the very idea of being globally connected. Good WiFi is now an expectation, not a desire. Cities cannot function without it anymore.
Arguably we have passed peak oil, many countries are reaching peak car ownership, and our mobility desires are now on a course of major upheaval and change. Young people don’t think like anyone over 35 – their expectations are not the same. They don’t need their own car. They are in staying home longer. They have car share, can hire city bikes, they walk, use public transport, they segue. They are abandoning the last vestiges of the generation Xers – owning their own home – that in turn unshackled the boomers who are now retiring. Renting is the new norm. Cities are where 80 per cent of Australians live.
This is a little stereotyping on my part, however trends are trends. Argue with them all you like, but we can draw some conclusions from the emerging avalanche of the new currency: data.
So, what next for the cities debate?
I’d like to posit that our city streets are underrated and taken for granted.
Think of the terms used to describe our streets. They are referred to the spaces between buildings, conduits for enterprise and commerce, places for people, conveyances, traffic distributors, arterial roads, car parks, shelter, scooter parking, running spaces, rubbish and litter collection, drains, real estate, and places to park horses (there is still a by-law in Adelaide that the City must, if asked, provide provisions for horses to drink on the street).
The volumes of new data now show that streets are hot, cool, shaded, sunny, busy, quiet, profitable, opportunistic, green, grey, blue, red, paved, unpaved, too small, too big, just right, well lit, badly lit, unsafe, wind swept, under-performing, under-utilized or just plain.
This is not an anti-car tirade. In fact, activity on our streets is a good thing. People walking, cycling, conversing, sitting, sleeping, enjoying, driving, riding, parking, crawling, and anything else remotely activity-based is important. We need to be smarter planning our streets.
So, what makes a good street?
Is it the buildings, footpaths, kerbs, gutters, car parking, traffic lanes, bitumen, sky and the occasional tree and bit of street furniture? Is the people, the smells, the activity, the exchange, the random encounters, the complexity, and the messiness? What makes a good street to you?
If we stretch ourselves, we can re-frame how we think about our streets.
Instead of the negative space, they are the positive space. Space for thought. Space for walking. Recreation space. Equitable space. Democratic space. Space for everyone.
Well-considered buildings make a good street. Bad ones make a street horrible for people walking. Buildings that do not engage the street are selfish and self-serving. Often the focus is on the form and shape of a building from an architectural photographer’s perspective – and usually people are absent from the image. Engaging the street need not ignore a well-designed form; in fact it provides opportunities for drawing people in, as well as pedestrianizing the interconnect between public and private domain. Scale, detail, activity, engagement and design are all elements that require thoughtful consideration in designing a building interface to a street.
Trees are good for streets. They can cool buildings by up to 10 degrees Celsius on a hot day and provide shade for people on the street. They also provide grandeur, delight, and beauty. They provide habitat. Trees are like columns to the sky, rhythmic and architectural, as well as environmentally beneficial. But above all they make us feel good. A pleasant view is proven to lower our anxiety, make us feel more secure and improve our mental health, even more so when there are large canopied trees that are connected to one another.
Do we forget the little things? Take street corners, for example. Who hasn’t stood, probably waiting for the traffic lights to change, looked out, and accidentally surveyed the landscape?
The town hall, that quirky old building, that cool new store selling things. The bank, the café, the coffee cart, the convenience store. The long view to the horizon that orients us. The laneway with the old building, that when you look up, you see detail you hadn’t considered before. Your mind wanders. You think, ‘what if people lived up there? What a great location! Would I need my car, would I ride more, could I walk everywhere?’ It's those moments – unplanned and mind wandering – that makes character and experience. Grit and grain connect us to place. It is like my annual drive along the Hume Highway – I don’t live there – but having experienced it and connected with it – I feel a sense of belonging and happiness.
Look at the port city of Newcastle on the New South Wales central coast. It's amazing and horrifying how it has changed from the industrial powerhouse it once was. There is massive decline and decay, however it is clear strategies designed to bring people back to its beautiful streets are now yielding results, emerging with new life and activity. Hunter Street is witnessing these green shoots, and the canvass of beautiful sandstone, brick and granite buildings along streets like Bolton Street reflects the character, history and people of Newcastle. It is worth visiting Newcastle just to stroll around and enjoy its beautiful setting.
So when we consider the elements that make great streets, and the often conflicting demands placed on them, we realise they have a brave civic function that we often underrate.
We need to rethink our streets as the great democratic spaces of our cities. Everyone is welcome to experience, enjoy, work, play, relax, and contribute. With the idea that our streets are for everyone, we must respect our streets and treat them appropriately. Look after them, nurture them, celebrate them, respect them, encourage better interfaces with them, and provide a balanced approach to their role and function.
So next time you’re pondering the waiting time at an intersection or crossing, take it all in, and ask if your city makes the most of its streets?
It is these moments that make us feel connected. Happy. Content. Relish it, soak it in, and look after our streets.