Streets: Transit Corridors or Underutilised Public Spaces?

Up to 70% of all public open spaces in Australian Cities are roads. Many of these are highly underutilised, supporting accessways to a handful of private properties, while others are congested bottlenecks channeling cars from A to B. While the primary function of roads is transit, many of these fail to do this successfully – either having too many cars, or too few to support the investment and maintenance required.

Streets as public spaces
There is a wide body of research and case studies that demonstrate how streets can be designed or transformed into living, active spaces with wide footpaths, bike lanes, public transport links, and green spaces that function as ecological links. Such design principles for streets have been coined complete streets or living streets. Both terms support the notion that streets are about more than just transit, they are about people – preferably people walking rather than people driving. Streets form an active part of a city’s open space network.

Resistance to change
Curiously, despite the benefits of living streets, and other similar models, such proposals are challenging to get off the ground in reality. Changes to streets is often met with opposition from local stakeholders. Traders associations fear loss of exposure and income (despite clear research demonstrating wider footpaths and reduced traffic congestion increase pedestrian footfall). Residents often resort to NIMBYism.

Their concerns are often legitimate in the short term – constructing a living street model will cause disruption. And the process of engaging with local traders and residents doesn’t create a shared vision of what the local area could be, building on local knowledge and experience. Recent examples of this include changes to the tram route upgrades in Melbourne. Disruptive construction processes along the Route 86 upgrade in Northcote had a very real and negative impact on local traders. Proposed changes to the Route 96 upgrade in St Kilda are now facing similar opposition.

But the conversation shouldn’t stop there. The long-term benefits of living streets to traders and residents has been well documented. So how do we make it happen?

Tools for change
Tactical urbanism is one approach that aims to shift mindsets about changes to the streets through low-cost trials. They help to visualise changes to a street, test how the changes will work and evaluate the impacts. It’s catch cry of “short-term action, long-term change” allows traders and residents to test out changes to streets before larger political and financial commitments are made. This helps to build a collaborative conversation with residents and traders about change, rather than traditional plan-and-deliver models which offer little opportunity for collaboration. Tactical interventions can also offset changes with early activation projects that provide positive benefits to local areas.

Recent tactical “tools” have been employed by city governments to reimagine streets, in a way that builds a positive, collaborative conversation. Some examples of this include:

1. Better block : a demonstration tool that reconceptualises a street or neighbourhood block. The project acts as a living workshop, so that communities can actively engage in the “complete streets” process and develop pop-up businesses to show the potential for change.

2. New York City Council’s Play Streets program creates a way to reduce cars in designated streets. This simple act of reducing traffic makes streets safer to play.

3. City of Adelaide’s Splash Adelaide program invites communities, traders and residents to co-create events and activities in public streets. In the recent upgrade of Rundle Mall, pop up spaces were set up around the construction works to offset the disruption.

4. “Try it for a week” initiatives such as the Dodds Street Design Lab, help to build a positive two-way conversation with the public about possible changes to a street. Here a live prototype offers a taste of the future, rather than asking stakeholders to comment on written plans and strategies that are difficult to understand.

As cities grow and densify, making the most of underutilised spaces in the city and reclaiming congested streets for people and sustainable transport is critical. Currently the process is long, and ofter heated. The benefits are clear, making it happen is the challenge. Tactical tools can help speed things up, and get things going.

Planning as enablement

Why planning processes need to reduce risk aversion in order to foster innovation and community participation.

Traditional processes of urban planning are characterised by a plan-and-control approach that offers little opportunity for immediate citizen engagement—and certainly not control. They are technocratic, rather than democratic. This makes it difficult for citizens to initiate projects, and to have shared responsibility for local neighbourhoods.

Recently, I had an interaction with a local Council in Melbourne, which highlighted this inflexibility. Together with some local business owners, I proposed creating a small public open space in two underutilised and non-revenue generating car parking spaces. Known as ‘Parklets‘, these small, modular spaces have produced measureable improvement in levels of sustainable transport, social inclusion and local economic benefit in the United States, and there are some existing examples in Melbourne.
Parket image citiesbycitizensIn this instance, the proposal was only for a trial Parklet. The project would be installed for one month in order to examine the impact, risks, opportunities associated with the space. This would then be used to build community support and evidence to inform a permanent facility.

The project was consistent with Council’s objectives for social inclusion and increasing the area of green space in the municipality. However, the lack of standard process around pop up projects or urban prototyping made a simple request suddenly very complicated. Without a procedure in place, the project passed through every level of the local government up to the CEO, who eventually recommended the project be submitted to the elected Council for review. Finally, in order for the trial to be approved, a road occupation permit and formal traffic management plan were requested. Both these formal application processes required substantial fees or expert reports.

Ultimately, the required documentation and risk management was disproportionately expensive for the low-cost trial, and it did not go ahead. Ironically, this same car park had been occupied by a skip for the past 3 months. It would have been far easier to install a rubbish bin in a public car park than it was to create a self-funded project would offer local economic, environmental and community benefit.
parklet cover

While this is just one example, it highlights a number of challenges surrounding current city-making processes. Here I want to discuss three:

Firstly, current procedures for establishing public spaces are design for experts: urban planners, engineers, architects, landscape architects. There are no parallel processes for local communities wanting to establish (and even fund) projects in their local neighbourhoods. While the current model might involve opportunities community communication and consultation, local communities have little opportunity for meaningful participation, and certainly not project initiation. A preferred approach is one that allows for both top-down and bottom-up decision making, and greater shared responsibility with communities.

Secondly, regulation caters for permanent infrastructure, and there is little scope for short-term trials and activities. While long-term planning is necessary on one level, regulating exclusively for the long-term means that resultant plans are not flexible enough to accommodate rapidly changing local needs, shifts in social structure, changes in the economy, or new insights into how cities might operate. An approach which combines long-term infrastructure planning with short-term prototyping to test and evaluate plans as social and economic needs change, would be a more effective means of city-making. This approach enables active, vibrant places in the short term, and also ensures that long-term plans can be adaptive to changing needs.

Thirdly: The risk aversiveness of local government limits citizen empowerment and innovation. Permits, fees, high insurances and lengthly application forms can make it prohibitively difficult for communities to initiate civic improvement projects. Some procedure and risk management is required, certainly, but systems should focus on fostering innovation and opportunity. Currently governments tend to act as gate keepers, rather than partners for local communities. Community partnerships can offer many mutual benefits including shared funding, maintenance and responsibility. After-all the globally acclaimed New York High-Line was a community-initiated project, and was possible because of an effective government-community partnership.

Current government planning procedures work well for expert-led, long-term planning processes. However they impose disproportionate control on projects that are initiated by communities, or demonstrate an unplanned land use. This stops citizens from being proactive in shaping, innovating and even funding projects in their local neighbourhood.

If city planning is to keep up with the needs of our rapidly growing and changing cities, there is a need to adopt more flexible approaches to urban development. Urban prototyping offers one solutions to this challenge. The benefits of this approach are:

  • Low-risk trials that allow testing of new concepts before substantial financial or political commitments are made;
  • Shared responsibility, and sometimes also shared costs, with local communities
  • Allow places can evolve incrementally, in response to changing local needs. rather than being bedded down in inflexible long-term plans.
  • Foster innovation and creative use of spaces.

Urban prototyping may offer an alternative pathway to the cycle of fees, permits and hearings. However this will only be possible if current planning processes can be flexibile to allow short term, temporary and community-led projects. As we have seen in the parklet example here, even facilitating the most basic of urban prototypes still requires some regulatory changes. However the core question is not how to regulate for urban prototyping and flexible use of space, as this could instigate a new set of inflexible rules. The question is how governments can work together with local communities to foster innovation and shared responsibility.