Take a moment to think of your favourite Australian street. It might be a local street in your neighbourhood, your nearest high street, or somewhere you visit at the weekend.
Now think about some of your favourite streets from around the world. You might be fortunate enough to have experienced their magic firsthand, or perhaps you’ve seen these streets portrayed in movies or online.
Think about the qualities of these places—ones that make it special to you. Odds are that these streets contrast starkly to the majority of those that you encounter in your day-to-day life in Australia.
A key point-of-difference between the streets that we love and those that we forget is their ability to connect with us on some deeper level—to invite us to stay, to socialise, and to make our own. Most streets across Australia however aren’t designed as places for people to do any of these things. Their utilitarian design doesn’t connect with us, lift us up, make us feel welcome. They’re designed as places to move people…and…that’s about it.
And while we’re not able to put forward all the solutions to this dilemma in a single article, we believe that starting the conversation is the first solution. So here we go.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the artistic, political, and philosophical movement of Modernism came to prominence as both the cause and result of broader transformations in Western society. With it came the mass production of affordable cars, and the city was thus reconceived as a ‘machine’, with cars servicing that machine and streets transformed to be primarily about the efficient movement and storage of those cars.
The primacy of the Modernist reorganisation of street space was that efficiency, separation, standards, and the like would ensure streets could best serve cities and their citizens in a safe and convenient (read ‘efficient’) way. Reflecting on one-hundred years of automobility it is clear that this is false. We were sold efficient transport and self-driving cars, but what eventuated was mind-numbing congestion through ugly places, and drivers distracted by their phones.
Modernism favoured specialisation and promoted an approach to design in which form followed function. With the street’s function redefined to prioritising automobility, responsibility for its design was transferred to the domain of engineering¹. Other functions of the urban street—built form, public space, social life, and so on—would be jettisoned, as the disciplines involved in their planning and design—architecture and landscape architecture—also became specialised².
Broken your leg? Call a doctor. Got a leaky pipe? Call a plumber. Live on a shit street? Call an engineer!³ Or better yet – a "Subject Matter Expert". They'll prescribe you some standards, separate your travel modes, cut down your trees (for clear zones of course), and ensure you’re moving safely and efficiently (if you’re in a car).
With little understanding of risk compensation theory4, these experts have gone about assigning everyone their rightful place in the street. Separation equals safety, they say.
Pedestrians are pushed to the edges—usually to a shitty footpath. Motorists—you guys get pretty much all the middle bit. And now cyclists—here's a mini highway just for you! Trees? Maybe in some of the leftover space (forgetting the soil they actually need to grow). And what about spaces to sit, meet, or play? Why the hell would we worry about that!?
In assigning everyone a place and trying to control all movements, we ignore the complex layering of social interactions that public spaces including streets require. Even spaces that are designed to merge all forms of transport—termed “shared zones” by Subject Matter Experts—have been bastardised by the Modernist mindset of putting up signs and blindly applying standards. Control in service of the machine.
The irony is that in trying to make our streets safer and more efficient with separation and segregation we’re robbing ourselves of all the social and economic benefits that vibrant, complex streets provide. Rather than trying to predict and control everyone and everything—like the good little Modernists that we are—we should embrace complexity. Take the infamous Poynton shared space shown below for example. This isn’t perfect, but the project highlights how great our streets can be when we unshackle ourselves from the Modernist obsession with making things orderly and efficient (aka, sterile and boring).
Furthermore, by fragmenting the component parts of street design, someone forgot to take responsibility for the street as a whole—for its role in the social life of our neighbourhoods and culture of our cities. Our streets seem to lack purpose, other than movement. There is little sense of vision, or capacity to change.
And so, here we are: idiot-proof Vanilla Streets that completely miss the point of why streets exist, how humans actually behave, and how streets contribute to urbanism more broadly—hint: movement is a means, not an end.
The upheaval in urban life experienced during recent Covid-19 pandemic years has brought to the fore our travel patterns, use of streets, and availability of public space in urban areas. There’s renewed focus on some aspects of designing our cities, such as: walking and cycling infrastructure, access to local open space, streets as shared spaces, and ‘future transport’ opportunities. While at first glance these efforts should be applauded, we must reflect on this period of transformation in a more profound and informed way than those progressives responsible for the vanilarisation of Modernist urban and transport planning. After all, the dispersed landscapes and sterile places created by the Modernists were delivered with the best of intentions – most of the time5.
This transformational period that we’re in is worthy of reflection because the street design initiatives that we hold up as best practice today, as being the key to addressing those urban issues highlighted by the pandemic, amount to the polishing-of-the-turd that is 20th Century street design.
Whether it’s the big picture stuff, like the fragmentation of street design professions, or the nuts and bolts of particular issues, like our ill-conceived approach walking and cycling—we need to do better. By recognising that street design is more than just an exercise in geometry, we have an opportunity to reinvent the 21st Century street fit for the challenges that lay ahead.
Let’s take as an example active transport—that’s walking and cycling in Transport Planning Land.
It’s refreshing to see active transport finally getting a seat at the transport table – even if it’s the kiddies table. Yet, in an eerily similar manner to 20th Century automobility planning, contemporary bicycle planning is focused primarily on moving people from A to B. Planned regional bicycle routes are shown criss-crossing our metropolitan areas in glossy publications, with the intention of providing quick and efficient cycling connections to and through the hearts of our village and city centres – sounding familiar?
Is a new network of bicycle highways really going expand urban cycling beyond the predominantly affluent, middle-aged, bum-slapping man club that it currently is? If local trips are seen as the biggest opportunity for getting more people walking and cycling, why are we focused on bicycle highways at a regional scale instead of slow, safe, active streets6 at the local scale? Because, our Modernist tendencies persist, that’s why.
The reductive term ‘active transport’ also glosses over the multiple experiences of the city that walking and cycling provides, and the reasons why people walk or ride a bike (hint: it’s about more than just moving from A to B). This has led to the proliferation of bicycle highways that risk creating a generation of two-wheeled motorists, whereas one of the key benefits of the bicycle is that it allows people to get about while also allowing the street to serve other purposes7. We’re missing a multitude of benefits that these other purposes could provide.
From the moment we leave our houses, we obey the commands of signs, lines, and lights. We mindlessly move through the city in streams of traffic, numb to the outside world. We are told precisely how to use many of the spaces we encounter, deprived of the freedom to explore it for ourselves. There is no time to linger, no time to enjoy the place we are in, no time to hang out. The street is about movement, and we are a nothing but cogs in the machine that is the city.
But we need to see the street for what it is—a complex system of relationships between different actors, each with different priorities, motivations, distractions, and skills. This complex system can’t be predicted, modelled, or neatly packaged up. It can’t be rationalised into segregated lanes. It can’t be standardised. It shouldn’t treat us like idiots.
As we’ve alluded to already, we’re not going to solve it all in one article – but there’s a whole world of solutions out there. For starters, we can create streets and shared spaces that don’t treat people like idiots8. We can cultivate a cycling culture that is accessible, casual, and inclusive9. We can build Nearly Car Free areas10 at the street, block, or neighbourhood scale. We can elevate the status of children in city-building11 to help them gain a sense of themselves as urban citizens. We can treat trees as the critical infrastructure that they are12, like we do pits and pipes. Each of these ideas needs unpacking and translating to an Australian context.
As it stands, we’re served vanilla flavoured street-cream from a Modernist ice cream truck, and we lap it up like obedient puppies.
Isn’t it time we tried a few different flavours?
Jason Packenham is the Integrated Transport Lead at ASPECT Studios. He is a landscape architect and urbanist working, teaching, and writing in urban transport and public space.
Will Smith is an Associate Landscape Architect at ASPECT Studios. He is a passionate designer of external spaces and advocate for better streets.
Jason and Will are both friends with many engineers, who hopefully have a sense of humour. They also like vanilla ice cream