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.

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