Streets are enjoying a timely revival as the focus for urban transformation, adaptation and social innovation. The challenges of climate breakdown and technological disruption, together with the increasingly diverse and multidimensional character of our urban environments, are introducing new practices that integrate economics, ecology, governance and health. As part of this new urban reset, streets are reclaiming their social relevance and political significance.
From an urban design point of view, there are a couple of aspects that make this revival particularly interesting. The first relates to the twofold condition of streets as both specific spaces with a defined character and as linking elements within city-wide networks that shape the form of urban environments. At a time when urban development and regeneration are primarily driven (and financed) by commercial interests, thinking of and designing cities ‘from the street’ refreshes the civic and cultural role of public spaces. If we consider that large cities are mainly composed of streets, there are clear opportunities to integrate and coordinate strategic approaches regarding, for example, climate emergency or sustainable mobility with local and community-based initiatives to enhance wellbeing and quality of life.
Reimagining streetscapes will also open up new relationships between architectural typologies and urban morphologies. This approach is illustrated in our recent masterplan for Shannon town centre, which transforms a heavily trafficked road into an updated version of the traditional Irish main street, bringing together green infrastructure, a social framework, a mix of entrepreneurial and residential uses and a series of showcase educational spaces as part of a town centre innovation campus.
The second aspect relates to the need (and opportunity) to act and react fast at a time of an unprecedented rate of change and transformation that is challenging established practices. The last two years are a clear example. As cars disappeared from streets and city dwellers were confined at home by lockdown rulings, public spaces were occupied by walkers, urban ramblers, cyclists, socially distanced coffee mornings, or outdoor play dates. Our challenge as designers is to adapt to a ‘learn as you design’ scenario and respond to rapidly evolving circumstances.
Streets provide a robust framework for this empirical approach that often relies strongly on participatory processes and community based stewardship. BDP’s greening of Oxford and Regent Streets or designs for the West Gorton Community Park are interventions that will evolve and adapt, with the support of local experts, to provide long term solutions for the sustainable use of these spaces.
Designing streets as spaces of social, political and cultural relevance implies primarily understanding what defines them as particular places. As urbanists working on projects in diverse national and international locations, a place-based approach is key to grasping the specificity of context. The formula strikes a balance between a technically sound methodology and a genuine curiosity and sense of enjoyment of the theatricality of life that unfolds each day in the streets of cities across the world.
The benefits to all societies and cultures are boundless. In every city in every country, reimagining streets as architectural spaces with social innovation as a priority is the first step in creating social infrastructure ecosystems that facilitate new and support existing relationships, encourage participation and civic action, overcome barriers and mitigate inequalities, and reinvigorate the relationship between public and private, between cities and citizens.