A paradigm shift in street design

Shopping, snacking, even elaborate religious worshipping, are not just activities done on streets but the pegs that hold together community life and expression

Updated - October 27, 2023 02:10 pm IST

Published - October 27, 2023 02:09 pm IST

Urban streets represent human existence, the highs and lows of what integrates the tangible realm of our lives every day. The manuals that municipal and state transportation planners use when constructing city streets have significant political impacts on many issues, including transit and bike ridership, pedestrian safety, public health, air quality, and many more. With time, street design has largely been impacted by the inflow of vehicles and the inclusivity of what qualifies as urban traffic. As a result, many cities struggling with mismanaged streets have begun to adopt more balanced, multi-modal approaches to street planning that are accessible and welcoming to all users.

Marine Drive, Mumbai.

Marine Drive, Mumbai. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Today, cities in India, when constructing new connecting roads, still follow this age-old approach that privileges the needs of automobiles before people or communities. Presenting a fresh approach, architects and planners must identify streets as a platform to integrate multiple cultures and societies to represent the identity of a locality. This is especially true in countries like India, where a major chunk of collective city life unfolds on the streets. Street shopping, snacking, and even elaborate religious worshipping are not just activities done on streets, but they are the pegs that hold together community life and expression.

Traditionally, street design has been dominated by a top-down approach with the narrow goals of providing connectivity rather than shaping communities. Planners and signatories have come together to lay out a plan involving centralised decision-making that is often rigid and authoritarian. On the other hand, the bottom-up approach involves a more decentralised and participatory view to planning, in which local communities and stakeholders are actively engaged in the process. Furthermore, it privileges a place-based attitude to designing streets which is more flexible and adaptive to local concerns as well as specific neighbourhood nuances. Rather than viewing these two approaches in a binary, a more fruitful solution would be to adopt a greater inclusive mandate that is focused on problem-solving.

Striking a balance

In most tier I and tier II Indian cities, the bottom-up planning approach is complicated by the influx of street vendors, haphazard growth of small-scale retail stores, and unorganised parking. Moreover, with a vast population to cater to, their vehicles and corrupt local governance networks do not allow the smooth implementation of policies and create spaces where illegal vending, parking of cars, or privatisation of public space occurs.

Here, a state government might use a top-down approach to establish a more balanced transportation system that caters to the needs of all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transit users, as well as automobiles. At the same time, the city government might use a bottom-up approach to involve local communities and stakeholders in the planning and design process.

For instance, to manage street vending in the city, vending zones could be allocated and better licensing systems enabled for street vendors.

These measures could be accompanied by training and support programs to improve the quality and safety of their products. Bottom-up strategies might employ community organisations and local vendors to implement these measures and identify appropriate vending zones. Similarly, addressing informal vehicular parking can include allocating designated parking spaces and implementing parking permit systems for residential areas. At its heart, this approach requires collective planning intervention to help local urban bodies and people actively participate and sustainably drive change while ensuring a long-term planning strategy with a top-down viewpoint.

It can offset exclusionary urban planning and provide social and environmental equity with a practical approach. It will further ensure that during the process, there is a balance between the ambition of the master plan and the on-ground realities of urban neighbourhoods.

Pedestrians cross a street in Auckland.

Pedestrians cross a street in Auckland. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

One example is the transformation of Fort Street in Auckland into a shared street, one of several new shared spaces implemented in Auckland’s Central Business District in recent years. The collaborative efforts of multiple stakeholders, including public agencies, local business owners and citizen associations have resulted in a 25% decrease in vehicular volume, 54% increase in pedestrian volumes and a 47% increase in consumer spending according to a report by The Global Street Design Guide.

The underlying idea enabling a comprehensive planning approach is bringing multiple stakeholders together. It can create ample recreational areas with healthy landscaping and heterogeneous neighbourhoods, making commercial and residential zones easily accessible. This ultimately adds value to people’s daily lives, strengthening the sense of community by creating interactive public nodes at regular intervals.

The writer is an architect and director, CEM Engineers.

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