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February 23, 2012

‘Living streets’ aren’t just for drivers

  • More cities and counties view their streets as spaces for walkers, cyclists, transit, parks, stormwater and even urban farming.
    SvR Design Co.

    von Schrader

    The fundamentals of street design have been evolving over the last few years, moving towards a multifunctional model that planners and designers are calling a “living street.”

    Historically the dogma that has guided the design and set the standards for measuring the performance of our public rights of way has been vehicle-centric. The result of this narrow focus has been a brutalized public realm that underperforms in every functional aspect except moving cars.

    It has also perpetuated the low expectations people have of their streets. These expectations would be universally unacceptable if applied to parks or other civic spaces.

    The good news is that these old tenets are being challenged by a populist movement that increasingly demands more from our public rights of way. Sustainability and social equity are becoming essential as metrics for policy development and design.

    In the United States this shift has been driven by nongovernmental organizations; open space needs; public health issues; federal, state and local mandates; and inspiration from other countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands.

    Picking up steam

    Photo courtesy of SvR Design [enlarge]
    The city of Bainbridge Island recently completed a living street project with features such as green stormwater infrastructure and amenities for walkers and bikers.

    The principles of “complete streets” and the work of the National Complete Streets Coalition have helped communities set new policy standards that have democratized mobility and accessibility in public rights of way, putting all users — including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit and cars — on equal footing. Locally, Futurewise, Transportation Choices Coalition and the Cascade Bicycle Club have assisted many communities in developing complete-streets policies. The city of Bainbridge Island recently completed a living street using complete street principles to greatly increase accessibility in the downtown core.

    U.S. Environmental Protection Agency consent decrees to control combined sewer overflows have agencies looking at green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) in the right of way as an alternative to building massive storage vaults to protect our receiving waters. Both Seattle and King County will be looking at GSI as a means to control overflows.

    The federal and state mandates of National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits have spurred interest in the ecological benefits of green streets and GSI in improving the quality of stormwater runoff.

    Kitsap County is beginning a project to develop a countywide green streets program that has a goal of looking at ways bioretention and biofiltration can also benefit mobility needs. The goal of the program is to integrate green stormwater management into the county’s transportation planning efforts, giving priority to projects that improve critical watershed health and increase multimodal mobility.

    Recognizing the dearth of public open space in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, Seattle Parks and Recreation is planning to turn four blocks of Bell Street into a park boulevard — a street that can meet both transportation and open space needs. Bell Street Park is a project that will demonstrate how a community can build a vibrant shared living room in its right of way.

    The recognition that public health issues such as lack of physical activity can be addressed by the design of the built environment has communities taking notice of their roadways and how active transportation such as walking and biking can be improved. Public Health — Seattle & King County has been working with consultants in the region to provide technical assistance to communities in South King County to develop and implement active transportation policies to install or improve walking and biking facilities.

    Additionally, communities are beginning to allow food cultivation in public rights of way to improve access to healthy food. The city of Seattle allows gardening in planting strips throughout the city.

    Performance-based strategies

    If the definition of a living street is that it is designed for “living,” then the components of that street must respond to the needs and aspirations of the community it serves.

    This makes it difficult to establish generalized typologies or standards that when deployed would create a living street. There is no statutory threshold or rating regime such as LEED that lays out the parameters for a living street.

    Rather, as communities develop policies and principles related to living streets they must select from a broad range of strategies that are performance-based and best meet the needs of all users. By way of example of what these strategies can encompass, last July over 100 designers and planners got together at the University of California in Berkeley for a charrette called Re:Street that was related to re-envisioning the American street.

    The group broke out into nine working/strategy groups, each of which were devoted to what could be considered an element of a living street. The strategies included: mobility and access, events and programming, social gathering, play and recreation, wayfinding, green infrastructure, urban agriculture, commerce, and image and identity.

    Finding the right balance of components or strategies for a living street needs to be an exercise rooted in the community it will serve.

    The living streets concept should institutionalize the insight that our roads need to perform in multifunctional ways that enhance the lives of all users, provide ecological services that protect the environment, and instill a mandate to design with a priority on living.

    Tom von Schrader is a principal at SvR Design Co. and sits on the steering committee for the National Complete Streets Coalition.

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