My last two pieces were reflections on different aspects of the process of creating better streets. This time, I want to turn my attention to the matter of how to assess whether or not a street has actually been made better. In fact, I’ll be writing about how we might assess the qualities of any street, whether or not it has recently been subject to a ‘betterment initiative’ (and if no-one’s ever used that phrase before, I’m claiming it).
One prompt for my doing this is the fact that, thanks to social media, I frequently come across people posting a photographic still of a street and using it to make a definitive point. Typically, these points are along the lines of: “See: hardly anyone in the modal user group I dislike ever goes here”; or “Look: there’s loads-of-space/no-space for the specific thing I want/don’t-want”; or “This is brilliant/rubbish. We can do it everywhere/We should never do it anywhere.” Whatever the words used, the commentary can usually be summed up by: “This photo proves that I am right.”
Twitter-judgment-by-photo also has another side, which is the replies that people make to posts by others, whether or not the original poster was making a particular point. “Where are all the…?”; “I can tell that’s great/useless because…”; “The look on that person’s face means…”; that sort of thing. There can be a good deal of fun to be had in this, such as when someone expresses indignation in response to a comment that they failed to realise was not meant seriously (try irony on social media at your peril); but while there may often be entertainment, there is rarely enlightenment.
My second prompt for this piece is the fact that I’m once again seeking nominations for the Urban Transport Design Award (UTDA) that is sponsored by Urban Movement and has been presented every year since 2005 at the annual Transport Practitioners’ Meeting. While the TPM venue changes regularly (this year it’s in Oxford during the first week in July), the raison d’être for the award has stayed the same.
In brief, the UTDA recognises highways, traffic and transportation schemes that do much more than just facilitate movement, and urban realm schemes that do much more than simply look good. Winning schemes will not only have fulfilled a core transport function but will also have achieved the broader objectives of urban design. Now, while other awards cover similar ground, what still distinguishes the UTDA is that, to qualify, nominated schemes should have been completed for at least one year at the time of their being assessed by the judging panel.
I have always stipulated this requirement for the simple reason that, although a scheme or measure may have been wonderfully photogenic on the day its ribbon was cut by an exalted dignitary, its real worth can only be judged by the experience of myriad ordinary people over a much longer period. It’s not just that I think it’s generally wise to wait a while to see what happens, it’s that I consider it preposterous to make a judgment based solely on appearances. Photos and plans are helpful, but they simply can’t tell you what it’s like to be there, walk there, cycle there…
The well-known proverb that says “the proof of a pudding is in the eating” is explained by the English Oxford Living Dictionaries as meaning that the real value of something can be judged only from practical experience or results and not from appearance or theory. This perfectly sums up my thoughts in relation to the value of streets; and it’s for this reason that the UTDA panel tries to obtain as much information as it can about candidate schemes and that each scheme is visited by one or more panel members, to obtain a first-hand report. Another proverb states that a picture paints a thousand words; but nothing beats actually being there.
Now, if it’s just a few strangers arguing about a street based on a photo or two, I’ll admit that’s not terribly important. And if others choose to hand out a design prize for a street they’ve never been to, that maybe be lax, but it’s not the end of the world. However, if important design decisions are made on the basis of the remote analysis of photographic evidence, that’s quite another thing. And this does happen.
The working practices of large consultancies, which seem to be getting ever larger, often mean that, for example, people based in Yorkshire are tasked with doing layouts for streets in Cornwall; with job profitability issues ruling out site visits. But I’ve also encountered local authority officers who don’t think they need to leave their desks to do their design work. After all, they know of the street in question and have driven along it a couple of times in recent years. And, if necessary, they can use three-year-old images from Google Street View to refresh their memory.
The use of photos to influence street design works in other ways, too. Some professionals get highly enthused by PowerPoint presentations of others’ schemes that they see at conferences and return to base wanting ‘one of those’. Others cite single photos of unfamiliar layouts as proof that all such arrangements should be shunned; when the real reason is more likely their fear of being taken out of their professional comfort zone.
Streets are for people, and to understand their value we need to get the perspective of their users, not just the view through a camera lens. Like I’ve said before: we need to get out more.
Having said all that, I’m now excessively conscious about the scrutiny that you will give to the photos and captions I use to accompany the text! So, what I’ll do is simply show pictures of three previous UTDA winners, as prompts to you to tell me about any schemes (open for at least a year) you think should be up for the award this year.
firstname.lastname@example.org will do the trick.
John Dales is a streets design adviser to local authorities around the UK; a street design trainer and design surgeon for Urban Design London; a past chair of the Transport Planning Society; a trustee of Living Streets; and a Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety committee member. He is director of transport planning and street design consultancy Urban Movement.
Tweet John @johnstreetdales
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