“Think of a city and what comes to mind? Its streets. If a city’s streets look interesting, the city looks interesting; if they look dull, the city looks dull.”, said Jane Jacobs in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. A street is one of the most significant elements of urban space, it defines the space. It’s the easiest way people can connect to a city as it represents the social, cultural and economic scenario of a city. Streets are deeply connected to the other elements of an urban space and create flexible networks throughout.
History of streets
The basic function of a street is movement. Dating back to the river valley civilizations, in Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, the narrow, unpaved streets were built at right angles within a larger block. Streets were built for function. They focussed on the movement of people and later, the movement of vehicles, animal carts that required wider roads.
In the Medieval era, the Romans, Spanish, Persian and other western cities had started to pave their roads with brick and stone. This was done to smoothen the ride of vehicles and create better paths for pedestrians to walk on. With time streets started growing into spaces where commercial activities could take place, therefore developed accordingly. By now the function of a street grew to host various activities.
The rapid development of cities during the industrial revolution impacted the streets as well. The streets of Europe lacked maintenance which led to the accumulation of large piles of garbage, potholes, dirt, crime and no sidewalks. To tackle this issue bicycles were introduced. This provided people with an alternative mode of transport that picked up by the end of the 1800s. Automatically the streets were well maintained and proved to be much safer.
About a hundred years later came the Complete Street movement. It aimed to create streets that cater to everyone’s needs irrespective of their mode of travel. The idea of street architecture was now setting into the minds of urban designers. Ideas were coming up to change the face of street design on various levels by data collection and analysis to involve users as a part of their street design.
Further development of the Complete Street design is multidimensional streets. They offer a sustainable approach to a larger bracket of the modes of transportation keeping in mind the impact the architecture of the street has on the quality of life, environment and the economy. It has several advantages- it is accessible to more people, creates paths to move a large number of people, supports local businesses and is environmentally sustainable.
Why is street architecture important?
In the older cities, each aspect of space developed considering its impact on the other elements. The built fabric and open spaces were in harmony. Each city was built based on its socio-cultural values. Towns were built in ways that their streets combined at a node which behaved as a gathering space. These nodes encouraged social interaction among people and created an experience as they travelled on those streets.
Due to the rapid increase of the urban population, the focus of designing a street had been shifted to widening roads to hold a larger number of vehicles. Street architecture had reduced to making large roads instead of focussing on reflecting the character of a place. Streets are dynamic spaces that evolve with time and help in the economic growth, environment and reflect the areas cultural values.
An urban street must support urban life. Taking Indian streets as an example, hawkers are a crucial stakeholder of our streets. People flock to the streets to shop for anything, clothes, accessories, vegetables, flowers and so on. All our cities including the metropolitan cities have this in common. It is an experience that a mall cannot provide. Developing our streets concerning our lifestyle will benefit the city.
Each street is unique, its character depends on the context, user group and activity. Street architecture is not just painting murals on the walls and adding rows of planters, it is how all stakeholders are involved, how local businesses are retained, it is the balance between pedestrians and vehicles, it is how the building facades interact with the street, how transition spaces develop, how its landscape improves the design.
Street architecture develops the street while maintaining its identity, and people take pride in how their community has developed. There is a feeling of ownership and the cultural, historic and natural environment is maintained. Streets narrate an area’s story, which is why mass-produced street designs are not a good option.
An example of vernacular street architecture in the village of Masuleh in Iran. This village has been thriving since 1006AD. What makes its architecture so unique is that its houses have connected roofs that behave as streets. The village has been built along the natural contour of the Alborz mountain range.
The locals studied the environment, climatic conditions and local materials and built houses made of wood, adobe and stone on a 60-degree slope. Each house is staggered backwards, creating a street that is essentially the roof of a house on the lower level. These roofs also behave as courtyards, gardens or public spaces. Pedestrians can move around freely, with no strict boundaries.
Streets are built to benefit a city and its residents. Their capacity should be increased in a way that responds to the urban context- by using sustainable modes of transportation, creating dedicated spaces for it, creating nodes for transit and keeping street activities alive. By carefully studying a street, maximum utilization of the same amount of space catering to various activities is possible.
Street architecture can transform a dead path into a happening place. Creating sidewalks, open street cafes, booths for hawkers, street furniture, landscape, development of street corners, demarcating path for bicycle users, dedicated parking spaces etc. are some methods to make the street design better.
The current pandemic has changed the fate of the streets. The entire world was under lockdown for about a year and the pollution levels drastically came down due to the decreased number of vehicles on the roads. Several cities including London and Paris, have been inspired by this idea and plan on introducing car-free streets post lockdown. Street activities can spill on the areas formerly used by vehicles. This encourages people to keep the streets active yet maintain the social distance norms, making streets a safe space for social interaction.
Streets are extremely flexible and can rapidly change with time. The pandemic proves that with no major changes in built spaces, streets are still active and have a positive impact on the community. William H Whyte said in his memoir A Time of war, “The street is the river of life of the city, the place where we come together, the pathway to the centre.”
Jacobs, J. (1961). The death and life of great American cities. New York: Modern Library.
William Hollingsworth Whyte (2000). A time of war : remembering Guadalcanal, a battle without maps. New York: Fordham University Press.