Better planning and good urban design are important elements in a local economic development strategy and in recent years, increasing attention is being given to the role of streetscapes. A ‘streetscape’ can be defined as the visual elements of a street, including the road, adjoining buildings, footpaths (sidewalks), street furniture, trees and open spaces, that combine to form the street’s character. However, this definition overlooks the strategic role streetscapes can play in directing the movement of people and stimulating business and employment. Improving the streetscape can make the local environment more inviting, healthy, enjoyable, safe, and interesting, but it can also connect disparate parts of a city or town. Streetscapes can be improved to change the patterns of economic activity, stimulate new investments and enhance new opportunities.
In the U.S., a “National Streetscaping Week” was established to encourage the design of streetscapes that use sustainable design strategies and construction practices to improve the environmental, economic, and social well-being of neighborhoods and communities. Streetscape improvements are seen as a key component in creating complete streets in communities all across the country. Improved streetscapes are seen as providing a myriad of tangible benefits to communities:
- Creating local green jobs;
- Reducing energy costs for consumers;
- Increasing the property value of homes and businesses;
- Reducing traffic congestion by providing access to alternative modes of transportation;
- Reducing water treatment costs by facilitating natural storm water filtration;
- Providing recreational spaces that encourage healthier, active lifestyles; and
- Reducing air pollution by sequestering harmful carbon emissions.
The City and Council of San Francisco launched the Great Streets Program in 2005 to improve neighborhood streets across the city by demonstrating best practices in design and the value of landscaping, lighting and pedestrian safety. These projects are funded through federal and state grants. Projects supported within this program typically include several elements:
- Sidewalk extension – Increase the usable sidewalk space for pedestrians and greening;
- Bulb-out – shorten the street crossing distance and provide visibility for pedestrian safety;
- Crosswalk treatment – Highlight pedestrian crossing areas for pedestrian safety;
- Pedestrian countdown signals/lighting – Install pedestrian countdown signals and pedestrian upgrade lighting for energy efficiency and safety;
- Utility Under-grounding—Remove visible utility overhead service wires and poles and install conduits underground to connect services to homes;
- Street tree planting – Provide traffic calming and ecological benefits;
- Roadway median expansion and/or planting – provide traffic calming and ecological benefits;
- Road lighting– Improve and upgrade street lighting for safety and energy efficiency;
- Bicycle improvements – Bicycle lanes, bicycle racks or other amenities to improve bicycle conditions;
- Public art elements – Create a sense of place, interest, and neighborhood identity;
- Site furnishings – Provide resting areas, bicycle racks, trash receptacles; and
- Stormwater elements (Low Impact Design) – Improve drainage and reduce flooding.
In São Paulo, Brazil, a group of young urban designers, called URB-I, aims to “change the perception people have of their city” and have established a crowd-sourced collection of more than 350 before-and-after shots showing city blocks across the world that have been transformed by pro-pedestrian makeovers. As Feargus O’Sullivan from The Atlantic’s City Lab writes, what is so striking about this collection is the “sheer volume of images, and because of its vast geographical range across six continents”. “This scope shows that, when it comes to policies for weaning cities off cars, we may soon reach a watershed after which such policies will no longer be an exception, but a rule”.
Back in America, Smart Growth America is an organisation that “advocates for people who want to live and work in great neighbourhoods”: “We believe smart growth solutions support thriving businesses and jobs, provide more options for how people get around and make it more affordable to live near work and the grocery store. Our coalition works with communities to fight sprawl and save money”. Its Best Complete Streets Policies of 2014 report highlights the role of policy in representing “a community’s intent to select, design, and build transportation projects that provide safe, attractive transportation options to homes, workplaces, schools, healthcare facilities, civic and cultural centres, and other important destinations. They direct decision-makers to consistently fund, plan for, construct, operate, and maintain community streets to accommodate all anticipated users, including people walking, bicycling, taking public transportation and driving cars and commercial vehicles”.
The organisation also promotes lessons in how “smart growth” saves money for local governments, makes money for businesses and is integral for the long-term fiscal and economic health of the community. This includes:
- Increasing tax revenues and reducing tax burdens;
- Attracting new businesses;
- Increasing the efficiency of the labor market;
- Providing greater stability in times of uncertainty and rising energy costs;
- Investing public funds to stimulate private investment;
- Increasing local capital circulation; and
- Providing a foundation for long term fiscal and economic health and competitiveness.
Local street designers and urban planners can work with the local business community to ensure streetscapes are closely connected to new and emerging market opportunities. An interesting example of this is in Newcastle, Australia, where the Renew Newcastle organisation is working with local property owners to make it as easy as possible for property owners to participate in the town’s economic renewal. Property owners can make a unoccupied property available to Renew Newcastle on either a fixed term basis or on a rolling basis (i.e., typically 30 days at a time) until they find a commercial tenant. In the interim, Renew Newcastle will undertake basic maintenance, remove graffiti, and “ensure that the buildings is an asset rather than a liability to the quality of the streetscape surrounding it”.
In the desire for more attractive streetscape, urban planners can easily overlook the economic dynamics of a city, town or settlement. If improved streetscapes are to contribute to a more dynamic local economy, with more and better local businesses and jobs, then streetscape design policies should be closely integrated into local economic development policies and plans.