The Street as an Element of Place
More and more over the recent years, you might have heard the term “placemaking” tossed around in discussions- what exactly is placemaking? Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. Placemaking capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspirations, and potential, with the intention of creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness and well-being. Simply put, the most loved places offer lively environments that attract people to visit, shop, dine, work, play or otherwise enjoy an area. Great placemaking efforts revolve around influencing the built environment. The public sector can help stimulate placemaking on private land through enticing plans, regulations, zoning, funding incentives and public-private partnerships. Public streets are also an essential element in a complete placemaking toolkit. As the primary public infrastructure of our transportation network, streets have a direct impact on the overall character of a place.
Streets typically make up about 10% of a communities land area. A good network of well-designed streets can give that 10% a larger influence on how people and investors perceive a community. Street width and overall scale of the blocks they create provide critical connections between homes, businesses, institutions, recreation and nearby communities. Understanding the hierarchy of street connectivity and design can have a tremendous impact on the character of your community.
Complete Street Networks—Enlivening Streets with People
A complete street network is one that has been designed to accommodate different modes of travel. It balances the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities. In some cases, to make a street attractive and safe for people to cross, walk to shops or school, access transit or bicycle to work, the street may need to be modified to reduce the emphasis on automobile operations. This does not mean a bike lane on every street. The ideal approach is to have a network of streets to support safe and convenient travel for all the ways people get around. By giving them safe options people may walk or bicycle more frequently and drive less often.
As the saying goes, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The design of streets, in combination with the design of buildings, parks, and public events, helps to activate a place. Implementing a complete street approach helps to match street design with land use policies so they collectively and consistently contribute toward an active and vibrant place.
Encouraging streets to complement their surroundings helps contribute to thriving land uses that adjoin them. Promoting healthy physical activity and enabling more people to choose alternative modes of transportation happens in places where streets are designed for lower vehicle speeds, have on-street parking, wide sidewalks, short blocks and frequent places for pedestrians to cross. This type of street design is important to fostering pedestrian activity, which in turn, can lead to improved economic activity.
Effective street design not only contributes to placemaking efforts, it has been shown to be more effective at changing driver behavior than changing posted speed limits. The placement of design elements like medians, curb bump-outs, changes in pavement materials, markings at intersections, and other “traffic calming” techniques can help slow vehicle speeds in areas with current or desired pedestrian and bicycle activity. For example, lanes that are eleven feet wide may result in slightly lower speeds than lanes that are twelve feet or wider without any measureable loss of capacity or increase in crash potential. But that extra few feet across a major street may allow on-street parking, a wider sidewalk or bike lanes.
Making our transportation system more sustainable involves many policies and practices that minimize environmental impact and create streets that are safe for everyone, regardless of age, ability, or mode of transportation.Green streets, through a variety of design and operational treatments, can enhance and expand public open space, reinforce desired land use patterns, and with thoughtful streetscape designs, help to improve transportation safety on appropriate street rights-of-way. Green streets can also be considered a more environmentally conscious approach to transportation. Streets that include reduced reliance on motorized transportation and include bicycle and non-motorized designs, will encourage physical activity that can lead to reduced fuel emissions and improved community health. Moreover, since streets represent some of the largest areas of impervious land cover, they offer a great opportunity to improve local storm water quality. Low-Impact Designs such as rain gardens, native plantings, street trees in grates, bioswales and porous pavement can help reduce the impact of impervious coverage. Changes like these to our everyday streets can have a significant and noticeable effect on environmental sustainability.
Transit Oriented Development is the exciting, fast growing trend in creating vibrant, livable communities. Also known as Transit Oriented Design (TOD) or sometimes Pedestrian-Oriented Developments (POD), it involves the creation of compact, walkable communities centered around high quality transit systems aimed at maximizing access to public transport. This makes it possible to live a higher quality life without complete dependence on a car for mobility or survival.
Today’s trending desirable “places,” traditional downtowns and neighborhoods, were built to fit the transportation system of their era. Many of the former “streetcar” towns and neighborhoods are viewed as more “transit-friendly” compared to suburbs developed in the auto age. Blocks were scaled for walking short distances, centers of development were concentrated along a main route and buildings were close to the street and easily accessible. This pattern supported pedestrians and transit. Over time many of those streets were widened. Buildings were vacated and more auto use increased demand for off-street parking.
Today, those compact, mixed-use design principles can be applied to these new developments. While the design needs to consider the features of a particular location, the following guidelines often should be considered.
Compact development. Compared to its surroundings TOD is more compact and has higher density so that more people can live, work, shop and go to school within the five-minute transit pedestrian-shed.
Rich mix of uses. Placemaking is supported by a diverse and rich culture of activities that are clustered and may function as a “24/7” place.
Public realm. Great TODs are composed of a grid of well-scaled blocks, a good network of sidewalks, attractive amenities, and way-finding. The streets, sidewalks, plazas and any transit stops or stations are safe, active and accessible and bring people throughout the day and night.
A network of non-motorized facilities, for walking or bicycling is an important component for both commuting transportation and recreation. When streets include sidewalks and amenities for non-motorized users, more people are likely to choose this “active” form of transportation. Connections are especially important between neighborhoods, schools, parks, offices, retail centers, and other destination places. This network of active, non-motorized transportation can be a great health benefit to a community.
Designing a convenient network for pedestrians and bicyclists should consider the different types of users. Experienced bicycle riders and commuters may be comfortable riding in traffic lanes on the street or in bike lanes. But the demographic of people that communities are trying to encourage to bicycle, more often than not prefer streets with lower traffic volumes and traffic speeds and thus may choose a side street.
A pedestrian and bike network needs to provide a variety of options to meet the needs of the different types of bicyclists such as sidewalks, shared lanes (sharrows), dedicated bike lanes, multi-use pathways, and separated bikeways (cycle tracks).
An underplayed topic in successful placemaking is parking. It is difficult to develop compact walkable places amid a sea of parking lots. There are a variety of strategies to manage parking but they require tailoring to the context. A one-size-fits-all approach using simple, shared parking formulas in some model codes ignores the complexities to make shared parking work. Furthermore, the “let’s leave it up to the developer” mentality rarely produces successful results over time. Some ambitious plans look to parking structures but do not factor in that those parking spaces may cost 10 to 15 times the cost of a surface space.
Reduced parking is an important part of placemaking, and planners need to evaluate a number of factors. For example, the mixture of uses, how uses may change in the future, potential to shift some auto trips to walking, bicycles or transit, the cost of land and its ownership and the willingness of the public sector to help meet parking needs, all influence the amount of parking required. Equally important considerations include personal habits, such as the distance people will walk and how that distance can be increased if they can see their destination ahead or the walk is along a pleasant streetscape. Transition from a parking-heavy suburban place to a more urban one may need a plan to gradually reduce parking over time as travel patterns change.
So, how should planners and city staff work together to apply the various transportation strategies to placemaking? Here are the “top 10” tips for improving your transportation and placemaking studio situation.
Link transportation with land use. Include street design when planning and designing places. Integrate land use and transportation in your comprehensive plan.
Think of the right-of-way as an extension of the public space, not as a place primarily for vehicles and others only if you have enough room to fit them in.
Use a layered approach to transportation – a network for each type of use especially for different skill levels of bicyclists.
Work with transportation agencies or the city engineering department to agree upon a balanced multi-modal level of service for key districts. This may involve accepting a reduced auto level of service for some streets to gain a higher quality for non-vehicle travel.
Engage the variety of travelers in your public involvement – commuters, bicyclists, freight representatives, disability advocates etc. Their perspectives are valuable.
Don’t ignore vehicles. Even in the most walkable, bikeable places, a high percentage of people drive. Look for opportunities for them to “park once” and to avoid the most intense pedestrian zones.
Make sure building entrances are conveniently accessed from the public sidewalk.
Look to reduce parking requirements through shared parking and a mix of uses that creates less parking demand or makes efficient use of parking throughout the day. But don’t just copy a code from another place.
Consider how transit can help stimulate development activity especially the premium transit like light rail, streetcars, and bus rapid transit.
Stay connected to the increasing menu of transportation design concepts to support placemaking.
SAFEbuilt partners with nearly 200 communities of all shapes and sizes throughout the country for the efficient delivery of privatized community development solutions including building department services, community & transportation planning and code enforcement in short-and long- term engagements to public agencies. Our team of dedicated experts has worked closely with local governments for over 20 years to meet their communities’ unique needs by offering a customized approach that provides proven best practices, expert personnel and improved service levels.