Are streets the answer – yes, but…

Yesterday’s launch by think tank Policy Exchange of a report calling for the removal of inner-city high rise estates and their replacement with streets is a welcome contribution to discussions about the design of future cities. The report, authored by Create Streets, concludes that high rise estates are unsafe, antisocial and economically substandard. By proposing to replace estates with streets, the authors claim they are responding to residents’ concerns. They also say that well designed streets can provide just as much housing as sprawling estates.

The argument for street-based living appears to be straightforward: people like streets and they deliver economically. Yet it isn’t as simple as this and the report quite rightly references research by Savills, Space Syntax and the Brookings Institute that shows the importance of street layout. There are better, well-connected, well used streets and less good, disconnected, poorly used streets.

In delivering street-based schemes, many architects and urban designers have struggled to understand the difference, and continue to do so. Witness the labyrinthine sprawl at the edges of almost every UK town: estate after estate of wiggling streets that create car-dependency and damage social wellbeing, health and land values. Streets, but not the streets that the report calls for.

The key then is to connect and integrate. A comparison between two different street layouts shows that the consequences on real estate value alone are enormous:

Streets and real estate value

The street network of towns and cities is an urban asset, a piece of critical economic and social infrastructure in which hundreds of millions – in some cases billions – of value are embodied. If the findings of Savills, Space Syntax and the Brookings Institute can make it into Treasury calculations then the true value of streets will be understood and the well-reasoned arguments in the Create Streets report will stand a better chance of being enacted.

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4 thoughts on “Are streets the answer – yes, but…”

  1. I’m reading it now, and it makes a clear, coherent case for more conventional streetscapes and against high-rise blocks. It’s well-referenced too. Like you, I suspect the issues are a little more complicated than ‘high rise bad, streets good’. For a start, block height and street layout are two separate factors. Think Copenhagen or Barcelona, where many people, including many families, live in medium-rise apartment blocks that do not have traditional street patterns. Or look at Hammarby Sjostad in Stockholm: it’s masterplan of medium-rise courtyard apartment blocks is proving more popular with families than was expected. I’m also curious about Vancouver, which claims to have created high-rise developments that people want to live in. To say nothing of Tokyo! But it’s thought-provoking stuff.

  2. I agree with both Tims. Unfortunately the authors of the report have surrendered to the temptation to conflate the arrangement of public and semi-public space in the horizontal plane with the arrangement of space in the vertical plane. It is possible to design tall buildings that properly address well thought out streets. In fact the era of high rise was not about delivering higher densities, but delivering the same density with a smaller building footprint because of the laudable but slightly misdirected ambition to increase light and green spaces.

    I confess I haven’t read the studies referred to but I am not yet convinced that the findings linking poverty of outcomes and built form show causality from the built height. I am more convinced by some elements – such as children being less likely to go outside to play – than some of the more generalised conclusions. The fact that the bulk of the buildings referred to were council built between the 50′s and the 70′s means that there are still elements (both design and time dependent) that might not be inherent in tall buildings. There are a number of historical reasons why high rise tends to be the preserve of residualised social housing, often in poorly connected areas and sometimes poorly maintained or managed. But most people could think of some highly desirable high rise addresses, or think of countries and societies where this association does not exist (at least not strongly).

    Just as tall buildings don’t necessarily mean bad streets, houses do not necessarily mean ‘good’ streets. Just thinks of the car dominated, widely spaced suburbs of the 30′s and 40′s with little by way of local amenities, or the cul-de-sac developments and executive housing estates of the 80′s and 90′s. Whilst no doubt more popular in terms of the polls referred to in the report, these arguably have damaging social consequences just as problematic social housing estates do.

    These errors lead to some accurate but misleading findings – for example the fact that high density buildings cost more to construct ignores the cost of land in the equation of providing good quality housing for the number of people that need it. The authors concede that the housing they criticise is not high density, but then conclude that the Mayor should abolish high density targets.

    Many of the reports suggestions should be welcomed – replacing high rise blocks with low rise, street based designs can work wonders as I have seen myself on the former Stonebridge estate in Harlesden, but this can be done whilst pursuing the higher densities that deliver economic value, potentially reduced environmental impacts and wider benefits to urban life through creating a ‘critical mass’ for public life. Many of the right points, but I would argue not necessarily the right conclusions…

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