At a psychologist, these statements can typically be heard.
“I am stressed.”
“I am feeling confused.”
“It’s difficult for me to deal with all the things that are going on.”
“There is little personal space. I feel hemmed in and under pressure.”
“I don’t know how I can deliver all the different things I am supposed to do.”
“There is so much happening, I feel I cannot relate to people anymore.”
If for a minute we saw city streets as thinking and feeling organisms, this may well be what a street would say to a psychologist too. We are burdening our streets with too much, too many functions and purposes. It’s supposed to be a shopping street, also a car-parking street, a driving street, a tram and bus street. And all that makes the pavements narrow. And sorry there is no space left for cycling.
The end result is that a street looks and feels confused, and then translates this feel to the user too. There are many examples in English cities of these sad-looking stressed streets. But these also exist in Germany (where I am currently visiting for my PhD field studies). I have seen these confused streets in Bremen (Ostertorsteinweg / Vor dem Steintor, also Sielwall), Braunschweig (Kastanienallee), Berlin and Hanover (Hannover) too…
What can be done? Well, a useful step to take is to clarify the purpose of a street. What’s my purpose in life? Is it that I am a shopping street? Is it a residential street? The measurement unit in this analysis should be the human form, the user. We can then design for human size, movement and comfort. If we however “design” our streets with the private car in a central role, the end result can be rather muddled and confusing for people.
Another important method for human-sized streets is to look at streets from the position of their outer boundaries, the walls, buildings, fences and hedges. This way we can design streets from the outside in. Pavement are needed everywhere – people walk, every journey includes walking. We want to increase cycling (Radverkehr fördern), so cycling infrastructure ought to be included too. The remaining space can be apportioned to public transport systems if needed on that street, and following that to the private car (moving and resting).
Yes, most of us can walk. And cycle. If condition are created to do so. We put too much blind faith and spatial emphasis onto the private car in those already complex inner-city situations. It is beyond belief (reason) what we ascribe to car access (jobs, economy, equality even). It is out of proportion and totally beyond what car access can deliver in all actuality. But in so doing (believing) we are stressing out city streets and ask them to do too much for us. They are confused. That confusion and stress is felt by the users too. Pedestrianised shopping streets have, of course, been shown to work well – effectively, comfortably and economically – if designed equitably for people movements. And residential streets can be traffic calmed by design, by cutting rat runs, installing filtered permeability, zoning and defining neighbourhood. Something German cities have been doing much more readily than their English counterparts.
Shifting the urban-design yardstick (back) to a human size to remedy our stressed streets is the right thing to do for a city that values its people, over cars.
We only have to shift the scale. Stressed streets can be cured.