It’s only a weeks since the Scottish Government announced its investment proposals for how to improve the connections between our towns and cities (the Strategic Transport Projects Review, see my blog article here). Now they’ve issued draft policy and guidance at the other end of the transport planning spectrum – how we should design streets within our towns and cities.
Designing Streets focusses on streets not simply as routes for vehicles, but as an integral part of successful, sustainable, well-designed communities. Like its recent counterpart in England and Wales, Manual for Streets, it puts good design and place-making at the heart of street design.
As the draft policy says, for too long the principal focus has been on the movement function of streets. The result has often been places that are dominated by motor vehicles and so fail to make a positive contribution to achieving a good quality of life.
Designing Streets assigns a higher priority to pedestrians and cyclists. It recognises their role in creating places that benefit all members of the community. The document refocuses on place-making, giving guidance on how to achieve well-designed streets and spaces that serve the community in a range of ways.
Lead author, Keith Gowenlock of consultants WSP‘s Edinburgh office, says that one of the key messages is collaboration. Designing Streets may appear on the surface to be about making streets that work better for everyone; but achieving that requires a massive shift in the way that streets are designed. Preparation of the document, and the accompanying awareness-raising efforts, have not shied away from this challenge.
Conventionally, consultants design road layouts and local authorities then audit them against strict technical guidelines. Designing Streets involves a more collaborative approach. Designers and regulators should work together designing not by ticking boxes against technical rules, but by applying a series of principles – layout and connectivity, quality places, street users’ needs and so on.
The all-powerful role of the Safety Audit has also been thoroughly reviewed. No longer will a finalised scheme be subject to the veoto of the Safety Audit, where any risk must be designed out before the new design can be implemented – the result being a proliferation of guard rails, signs and other safety features, most of which serve to create a placeless, hostile environment. The process inevitably urges all other factors – quality of life, encouraging walking and cycling, health benefits – to be sacrificed on the altar of eliminating risk.
Now, Safety and Quality Audits are being introduced. The inclusion of the word ‘quality’ in the description says it all. No longer is risk the sole arbitor of design: contribution to the built environment and other agendas will be taken into account too. Risk should be managed rather than eliminated, and assessed against other criteria.
Equally importantly, the Audit will be integrated into the whole design process rather than take place as a veto at the end. More evidence of that principle of collaboration.
It’s all very well for planners like me to wax lyrical about designing better streets and places, with a different attitude towards safety and risk. (That’s not just a personal view, by the way – it’s embodied in government guidance such as Planning Advice Note 76: New Residential Streets.) But how do we know that this new way of designing is safe?
It’s quite simple: there is now a big base of evidence that streets designed in this modern way are safe. Preparation of Designing Streets drew on the research evidence from across the UK that was developed for the Manual for Streets prepared in England. Streets designed this way – for all street users, not just motor vehicles – not only makes them more comfortable and sustainable: we now have evidence that they are just as safe as, if not safer then, their conventionally designed 1980s and 1990s roads.
This is fundamental – we cannot create streets that are less safe for people using them. It is also important to give comfort to concerned traffic engineers who are being asked to change their design philosophy and sign off design proposals. They need confidence that they are not going to be liable for street layouts that might contribute to accidents. The evidence base gives them that comfort.
OK, it all sounds great. Streets will be safe and they will work better for everyone. But how do we know such massive changes in thinking will ever be implemented?
This is where the status of Designing Streets is so important. We won’t know for certain until the consultation is complete and the Scottish Government publishes the document in its final form. But the stated intention is that much of the document will have the status of statutory policy. As the draft document states, it will be a material consideration in determining planning applications and appeals for residential and lightly trafficked streets in Scotland.
This is exactly what we need to create better, more sustainable places in Scotland – a document that not only contains good place-making principles, but also has the statutory weight needed to see these principles be put into action.
To have your say on the Designing Streets consultation, click here.