Guide boosts street life

Latest government guidance on street design lays down principles that are poles apart from previous advice and should help to reduce the dominance of private cars, reports Huw Morris.

Colin Buchanan, one of the all-time great transport planners and engineers, was so seriously alarmed in later life by the impact of the car on the nation's roads and streets that he dubbed it "the Rottweiler".

He had a point. In the past decade, the number of vehicles on the UK's roads has increased from 27 million to 33 million. Now junior transport minister Gillian Merron has decided that it is time to bring the hound to heel. Nothing short of a revolution in street design is in the offing.

Manual for Streets (Planning, 6 April, p6) has been described as the most influential urban design document in 50 years. It offers a mandate for creative street design that puts quality of life first. Llewelyn Davies Yeang, part of the team behind the manual, sees it as completing "the missing link between planning policy and residential street design".

Aimed at transforming the way engineers, urban designers, conservation officers and planners think about street design, the publication marks a sea-change in attitudes by shifting priority away from drivers towards pedestrians, cyclists and public transport passengers. Engineers are urged to focus on the whole street environment, not just the space between the kerbs.

Finger pointed at old guidance

Previously, the villain was Design Bulletin 32. First published in 1977, it encouraged a professional mindset focused on motor traffic at the expense of any other street users. It damaged the environment, neighbourhoods and quality of life. "Such outdated planning strategies saw streets purely as a way of getting vehicles from A to B," says Merron.

"We must acknowledge that they are places in their own right that a wide section of society should find attractive. If we are serious about building sustainable communities in which people want to live, work and play, we must find a balance between the needs of those who live locally and those just driving through."

Among the manual's key principles is a clear distinction between streets and roads. "Roads are mainly there to facilitate traffic movement," says Alan Young, senior technical director at WSP, which led its development. "Streets should be attractive places in their own right rather than just corridors for traffic. Streets should be inclusive for all people regardless of age or ability."

This approach also underlines the growing links between planning, transport, health and well-being. Young says it obliges planners and engineers to "think differently about how they are delivering their objectives and balancing the needs of users with the function of each street in the overall road network".

Key messages from the document include avoiding clutter and keeping signs, bins and bollards in their place. Distinctive streets made with local materials are the new order. Safety is emphasised by calls to keep vehicle speeds down to 20 mph on residential streets and to avoid alleyways unless they are short, wide and visible to residents.

Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment streets adviser Louise Duggan particularly welcomes the manual's shift from "an obsession with risk", which she believes has actually made streets more dangerous. "Research has shown that where you provide wide streets and maximum forward visibility, drivers behave more dangerously," she adds.

WSP technical director Andrew Cameron argues that connected street networks at a human scale are the way to create great places where people will want to be. "The curvilinear cul-de-sac road layout is no longer a recommended default setting for street design, although there is still a place for it in residential areas," he suggests.

"We should also look carefully at context and vernacular," Cameron continues. "Streets in Newcastle should be different from streets in Somerset. One-way streets should be discouraged because they often promote higher speeds, more miles travelled and increased signing."

Apart from some quibbles that the guide focuses too much on new residential areas, reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, "This is a move from an approach based on standards to one that encourages innovation and judgement," says English Historic Towns Forum chairman Brian Human.

"It brings increased freedom. We must show that we are able to use that responsibly and develop the skills and co-operative working that it will demand."

Manual for Streets is available at STREETS MANUAL

- Pedestrians and cyclists should be at the top of the street hierarchy.

- Streets should be seen as spaces for social interaction.

- Streets should promote inclusive environments.

- Signs and markings should be cut to the minimum.

- Designers should recognise the needs of people of all ages and abilities.

- Vehicle speeds should be restricted to 20mph on residential streets.

- Quality audits should show how designs meet key local environment objectives.

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