Why generating ‘street life’ - in all its senses - is the key to building successful cities

Ben Derbyshire

The phrase “street life” sums up in two words the essential focus for successful placemaking.

The phrase captures the human dimension. It implies that creating an environment that works for people in the various aspects of their lives that are to be fulfilled in public is the paramount consideration for designers and developers of successful places. Places that enable and support enjoyable human existence.

Streets are universally the theatre in which this urban existence is played out. Streets are also the connective tissue that holds the city together, supporting not just movement but carrying essential infrastructure. Thus “street life” encapsulates the key human and spatial ingredients of placemaking.

The starting point for the creation of successful street life is a consideration of human need and the disposition of uses and spaces - internal and external - that make for an enjoyable existence. The juxtaposition provides easy access and the opportunity for a range of experiences from interaction to solitude.

Nolli’s map of Rome, drawn in 1748, famously expresses this idea by revealing the full extent of the publicly available ground plane, both within buildings and between them. The resulting plan reveals a rich and diverse pattern, a metaphor for the pattern of city life.

As our population increases and cities become inevitably denser, it becomes increasingly important to accommodate more intense human activity comfortably and safely

That is why landscape design, in the context of placemaking, has to be a collaboration from the very outset of the development process. Because designing for the life between buildings must take account of what goes on within them. Developer, urban designer, architect, and landscape architect should work closely together.

Moreover, as our population increases and cities become inevitably denser, it becomes increasingly important to accommodate more intense human activity comfortably and safely. Population density and the intensity of human activity varies from time to time and from place to place. Good design recognises these dimensions and addresses sparse and intense, active and passive human activity. The design requirements at the opposite ends of this spectrum of human intensity are widely different.

Where movement and footfall converges on transport connections with a high density of mixed uses, the challenge is to create space that permits people to linger and interact at the same time as others are free to move easily to and fro by various means (including, especially, by bicycle amongst other modes).  Here the ground plane is in intense demand and success lies in making a generous allocation of comfortable sheltered space safe from traffic. Courtyards, arcades, canopies, logias, belvederes and terraces are useful devices to achieve this and these should be designed bearing in mind aspect and shelter to create a comfortable microclimate.

In outlying residential areas, where pavements are relatively devoid of movement, the challenge is a design which supports a residential community’s natural propensity for mutual support and reinforcement. Neighbourhoods that work well are those where it is easy for people to look out for one another, oversee children’s play, keep an eye on the environment, and see off miscreants. Once again, street life is the operative phrase, brought about by the orthodox familiarity and the ordering principles of traditional street design: Street doors, bay windows, balconies. Most important is a relationship between internal functions and the public and semi public realm that permits privacy at the same time as the passive supervision of what goes on in the street outside.

The design of the public realm has the job of spanning extremes of usage at the same time as holding a neighbourhood together, creating a language of materials, details, hard and soft landscape that is familiar, legible and identifiable with the location. The design of the public realm contributes powerfully to a coherent sense of place capable of communicating its identity as an attractive destination to live, work or play.

Robust simplicity is the way to achieve the integrating function of well designed public realm. A high quality pallet of durable materials which simply delineate the space allocated to different functions works best: over-elaborate geometrical design creates confusion and is hard to maintain. But perhaps the most important ingredient is the successful integration of substantial elements of planting. It is especially effective in the early days of creating a desirable destination for newcomers to be struck by the sense of established well-being that is imparted by mature greenery.

Ben Derbyshire is managing partner of HTA Design