A vision for public places and the importance of liveable, accessible and comfortable space
Written by Colin Davis
Imagine you have just finished an excellent building conservation project. Now is the time to take some memorable photographs to record the result. Having already taken the ‘before’ pictures in the winter, now in the spring sunshine you want some really good images to show your work at its very best.
But there is a problem: the collection of tacky traffic signs which helped to make the building seem rather pathetic before restoration, is still in the foreground; and the pavement in front of the building looks as though it has been run over by a tank and repaired by a DIY beginner. In other words the all important setting of the project, though possibly beyond your control, is about to mar the final achievement.
This scene, including all that we see in the street, is what we mean by streetscape. We do not only look at buildings, which are usually the subject of considerable care and attention by the planning and conservation authorities; we look at the whole scene including the spaces between buildings. This includes the quality of the pavement surfaces, the odd pieces of street furniture as well as the official traffic related street equipment.
Very often the whole character of an historic main street is hidden behind a seeming mist of street furniture clutter. It is almost like a fog. Stand on any high street corner and list the number and types of pieces of iron on the pavement or road that interrupt the view of the important buildings. You will record an astounding fact; throughout the length and breadth of the country, the constituent parts that make up the fog are almost identical; so too are many of the surface materials and the way they are laid.
While there are exceptions, particularly in residential conservation areas, there are now very few regional variations to respect the quality of local building types. In the nation’s trafficked high streets, a dull uniformity appears to act against the notions of providing appropriate settings for local historic buildings.
The aim should be to consider the whole streetscape in the same way as we consider the conservation of an individual historic building. Building conservation specialists ensure that historic buildings are useful and viable in a modern context but unspoilt. The whole street should be given the same attention.
Conflict of objectives
Why do these problems occur? Certainly there are no deliberate acts of vandalism. No one consciously sets out to destroy or even erode the quality of the streetscape. Many of the things we see in the street scene are a direct response to practical problems. For traffic to move safely, national standards are needed so that drivers can instantly recognise signs giving warning of danger. People with disabilities need special attention and of course in every town there are financial constraints.
Unfortunately the street scene is often the result of severe conflicts of interest. At least four are very evident in every high street:
One way to resolve the most significant conflicts would be to ban traffic completely. The town, or at least its historic core, could possibly be reserved for pedestrians and then much of the traffic equipment would no longer be required. However, in most towns this is not practical. Vehicles though partially restricted, will need access at some time of the day or night.
Fortunately there are sensible, more practical ways forward. The following two principles help: first, to reduce unnecessary clutter; and second, to ensure that new work and on-going maintenance to the street scene respond to the best of what is already there.
Clutter is made up of lots of bits and pieces. The only way to reduce clutter in the streetscape is to look at each individual item and consider whether it really is necessary and whether it can be removed, hidden, replaced in a less noticeable position or at least painted a less obtrusive colour.
This process is made more complicated because there are probably some dozen separate agencies who have the authority to fix or place their equipment in the street without any reference to a coordinating or planning authority. Much of the process of reducing clutter has to be done by painstaking negotiation.
However, once this cooperation has been established, there are a number of things that can be done quite inexpensively. The most obvious is to reduce the quantity of posts that stand on the pavement. For instance the number of lamp columns can be reduced by fixing street lighting to buildings. Modern techniques allow sufficient latitude for the lamps to be fixed onto the buildings with the same care as is given to the position of a window or decorative feature.
Traffic lights do not always need their own posts; they can often be fixed to lamp columns. Many traffic signs can be fixed neatly to buildings and there are new systems to reduce the size and gross shapes of the support posts that are needed for those traffic signs that are essential.
Bins, benches, bollards, tree grills and finger posts come under a different category. They are usually placed on pavements purely to provide an immediate amenity for pedestrians. The problem is that over a period of time they accumulate and deteriorate so that they merely add to the impression of clutter. In fact, because they can be positioned almost anywhere, they can be shaped or selected and put on the pavement to conform to an over all design theme, preferably relating to the specific locality.
Respect and enhance
Although considerable sums are spent on hard landscaping enhancement schemes, much is wasted by poor maintenance or inappropriate design.
Pavements and public spaces are notoriously difficult to maintain. Maintenance budgets are often restricted and physical wear is very high. Materials and the way they are used need to be able to withstand virtual neglect and constant abuse. However, there are guidelines to consider. Perhaps the fundamental point is to study the use of local paving materials to see to what extent they can be replicated.
The way in which traditional materials are used locally is important. Granite setts for carriageways, granite kerbs and sett or stone gutters are often constructed with subtle variations from one town to another. Even within a single town there may be differences between one district and another.
In Edinburgh, for example, granite setts were used for the carriageway, gutters and cross-overs, while the actual pavements were of sandstone. These materials have been retained in many parts of the city, and the tradition for laying these materials is a craft that has continued uninterrupted to this day. Here there are still craftsmen who understand their materials and can, with the most limited instruction, carry out and adjust the layout on site to suit the local conditions. However, this situation is unusual and in the current local authority environment of client/contractor split, these skills can rarely be relied upon entirely. Specifications and detailed drawings of paving material layouts have to be supplied so that contractors can have the opportunity of tendering fairly against their competitors.
At Bridgnorth, stone is not the predominant traditional local construction material, nor was it used for paving. Pavements are made of a yellow engineering brick and private access-ways across pavements are traditionally constructed in a hard blue engineering brick, usually of smaller dimensions. Gutters rather than being of stone as in Edinburgh are made from large blue clay tiles.
In both the Edinburgh and the Bridgnorth examples the principles are the same. There is no substitute for local research. In all cases it is necessary to examine good examples of the traditional local use of materials.
Because we can no longer rely upon contractors’ estimators to necessarily understand what specifiers are seeking to achieve, it is essential for contract documents to include accurate specifications. Detailed sectional drawings indicating precise construction methods together with accurate layout drawings explaining where changes of detail and material are needed to respect the different architectural styles and function of the adjacent buildings.
Today there is an increase in expectations and a greater awareness of the importance of appropriate street furniture and paving materials. With care, they can be made to form a suitable setting for the wealth of historic buildings throughout our towns and villages, which is so vital to the quality of the streetscape.
This article was originally published in The Building Conservative Directory (www.buildingconservation.com) the guide to specialist suppliers, consultants and craftspeople for the conservation of the historic environment.
Colin Davis Biography
Colin Davis trained and practised as an architect and town planner before setting up Colin Davis & Associates, an urban design practice specialising in the design and maintenance of the public realm. He is a co-founder of the Public Realm Information and Advice Network (www.publicrealm.info), a not for profit network of professionals from the fields of engineering, planning and urban design who are committed to enhancing the quality of the public realm and the urban experience in the UK.