Friday, August 14, 2009

Hawkes and Sheridan on Rethinking the Street Space

For more than 100 years, street design policy was stagnant. But now, planners and policymakers are expanding their ideas about what streets can be. Amber Hawkes and Georgia Sheridan examine the history of street design -- and look to the future.

Some first excerpts from:
Rethinking the Street Space: Evolving Life in the Streets

Good design supports the function of a desired use. For over 150 years, street design standards and funding structures have successfully supported the single use of automobiles in the street space. Major cities across the globe are beginning to rediscover the street space (i.e. streets, sidewalks, alleys, and everything they contain) as an essential component of our neighborhoods and communities. In an effort to improve the quality of urban life, a wave of new street design manuals and toolkits has emerged - redefining the way streets are used. However, as communities rewrite their street design manuals, they face an outdated and well-developed federal transit infrastructure. History shows that street design standards have been limited by the prevailing notion of streets as a place for cars, rather than people.

Streets as Places for Reform: Bicycles Pave the Way for Automobiles

Urban streets of the Victorian era suffered from their own set of design and maintenance issues: rotting trash, horse droppings, crowding, crime, noise, mud, dirt, potholes and streets without sidewalks. When introduced in the early 1800s, bicycles, or "freedom machines" as feminist Susan B. Anthony called them, provided urban dwellers with a new form of mobility. At the turn of the 19th century, innovation in bike technologies brought about a nationwide bike craze. In the 1890s, 80% of residents rode bicycles on a regular basis in Detroit, the future "Motor City" of the world.

Bicycle coalitions and clubs became the first advocates of street standardization, calling for smoother, safer roads. With a zest for 'sanitation' and 'social order,' Victorian-era governments were happy to oblige. In 1875, the Public Health Act in England passed a by-law street ordinance that mandated wide, straight, and paved streets. These early, rigid regulations, emphasizing uniformity and standardization have remained largely unchanged over the years.

* For the full text of this second article in the Planetizen series "Rethinking the Street Space" click here to

The next article in the series will take a look at the recent wave of livable street design toolkits and policies published by cities across the country and world, comparing mission statements, design elements, implementation plans, and decision-making structures. The first part of this series looks at why street design matters and where we are today in terms of designing the "street space."

Amber Hawkes and Georgia Sheridan are Urban Planners and Designers working in Downtown Los Angeles at Torti Gallas and Partners. They have lectured at conferences and universities and have worked in a variety of capacities that inform their planning and design work, from behavioral art therapy, social work, and historic preservation, to health law policy, green building policy, and journalism.

Print this article