It’s about roads. A lot of them are a bit too big.
This thought could have occurred to me anywhere in Western Europe but I had it while driving along a motorway-grade road in the middle of Gothenburg, Sweden. Do we really still want 20 metre-wide roads in our cities? And if speed limits are falling in cities, why do we still have roads designed to facilitate rapid driving?
There’s an interesting article by a chap called Broadbent (2003) which outlines the evolution of design. Stage one is the one where the designer is the maker: think hand-made shoes assembled from local materials. Before the industrial revolution this was how things were done for most products. Then the designer and maker became separate. A designer handed his work to others to
produce. Architects gave drawings to builders, designers gave drawings on to production engineers and on to machines and people on lines. This design was not scientific: the designer did what she or he thought best. After this there was an attempt to systematize design according to scientific principles in the name of efficiency (narrowly conceived): hard-systems methodology. All of that meant a focus on the quantitative. As I have said before this led to the impersonal, imposing and often dehumanizing buildings of the mid-20th century. Phase 4 of design is where there is an attempt to bring back the psychological and the personal into design, known as soft-systems methodology (SSM). Anyone who has heard of user-centered design will be thinking of a soft-systems methodology.
For product design this SSM approach is being implemented and gradually new things will replace old things made the hard-systems way. But we still have the large-scale products of hard-systems thinking: wide roads and free-flow traffic systems of the postwar period, the infrastructural equivalent of the unloved high-rises and system-built apartments that have caused so much misery. The Chinese are still building this stuff. The roads were conceived of as simply a means to channel traffic. There was no consideration of how people felt being near these things. They prioritized the person travelling over the many who lived nearby. They assumed cars and trucks needed to travel quickly and considered no more. Coventry, for example, was girdled in a ring-road to facilitate this kind of travel, leaving streets divided and at their ends the ugly stumps of exposed gable walls
and PLEAPS (the odds bits of land left-over after planning).
A lot of thought is being given over to the decline of the private car. I think we might also want to reconsider whether we still want so many wide strips of concrete and asphalt dividing districts, these hard systems relics. I would like to suggest that the first thing we do is to take down the concrete crash barriers and heavy-duty illumination that make these urban roads like motorways. It only encourages fast driving. The next thing is to narrow the roads back to two lanes and add footpaths. As the shared roads movement shows, a lack of guidance and the expectation of pedestrians is very effective at slowing traffic.
While soft-systems methodology is now an established part of design for new products and many new buildings, the left-overs of hard-systems engineering thinking is still in evidence everywhere you see a huge sweeping road with a 30 kmph speed limit. We need to get rid of this and make streets for people.
You might be wondering what’s in this for drivers. Well, assuming there are very many in the future, these places would be nicer drive through and nicer to be in once you stop. I also think that the engineering-thinking that led us to build these driving conduits made a road environment that was uncomfortable and hostile for drivers too. When I am driving I feel more at ease on a small, local road than I do driving along a motorway-grade carriageway. You can feel a sense of relief when you exit the motorway or when you get off arterial roads. The 20th century experiment with engineering thinking turned out to be a disaster when applied to architecture and we are removing those failures year by year. Big arterial roads should be next. The time has come to make our roads fit for the people inside the cars and not the cars themselves.