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The Street


by Richard MacCormac

This essay first appeared in Urban Design, Issue 53, 1995

Because streets are so ubiquitous we take them for granted. Yet like many familiar situations we may only realise what they are when we are faced with what they are not.

A year ago, visiting the wealthy suburbs of Santiago where residents are protected by walled compounds and private police patrols I realised I was witnessing the geographical and social disintegration of a once homogeneous city. Returning to London I was suddenly struck by the 18th and 19th century houses with front doors opening directly into the public realm of the street. These fragile panelled doors, which we are so used to, are really an amazing affirmation of an orderly society.

The 18th century city streetscape – Edinburgh or Bloomsbury – startlingly contrasts the privacy of the house with the city as a whole with the precise symbolism of the front door standing on the threshold.

Once outside that miraculously thin front door, you become part of something larger than the local community and engage in a freedom of association and right of accessibility offered by the ‘urban’ public realm of the street.

In his book ‘The Fall of Public Man’ Richard Sennett argues that the localising of modern societies into exclusive suburbs and separate communities works against the kind of urban society created by the 18th century city in which all impersonal social orderliness actually engenders a wide degree of social tolerance interaction and a diversity of experience.

It is observed that in modern cities there is a horrible symmetry between the privileged suburban ghettos of the wealthy and the social disorder of the poor estates which are, in a sense, their reflection. In both situations streets have given way to roads and cul de sacs. These communities are no longer physically part of the continuum of urban place and urban life.

Booths poverty maps of 1889 show two urban characteristics rarely found in monolithic single class modern residential developments; relative wealth changes from street and the streets are part of an urban continuum. The alternations of rich and poor streets records the social interdependence 0f the well to do with those who served them. Today alternations of high and low rentals in the same structure promote a commercial variety and interdependence which modern monolithic developments, like CanaryWharf cannot sustain.

The disintegration of the traditional street based city and its replacement with dispersed and fragmented residential communities, separately located business parks and out of town shopping centres is an international free market phenomenon. If we want to reverse this trend I believe we have to view our man made environment in much the same way as we are beginning to view our natural environment. We have to think in terms of the values of an urban ecology. We have first to identify what these values are and the factors which sustain them and the the practicable measures which can achieve that sustainability.

I see several crucial issues of which the first is obviously the future of the car. At both central and local government levels road design remains largely independent of other urban issues and consequently there has been little serious debate about trade offs between highway criteria and the urban environment as a whole. It is time for new paradigms. It is perhaps symptomatic that the last masterplan for Milton Keynes proposed linking the hitherto separate communities with a street system independent of the fast city road system defined by the grid.

We need to review how the evolution of urban functions affects streets. Elsewhere I have suggested that we should distinguish between what I have called ‘foreign’ and ‘local’ transactions. Foreign transactions – wholesale, warehousing, manufacturing and offices do not interact with people in streets whereas shops, small businesses, restaurants, bars, street markets and the front doors of houses do. Convivial places are made up of the latter and we need to sustain them. That means challenging the way many modern shopping developments and supermarkets privatise the public realm or destroy local transactional street frontage.

We need to consider how physical planning constraints make good streets. We should insist as planners do in Berlin, that all developments come up to the building line and share party walls with adjoining owners. Just these two principles would reverse the universal trend that isolates individual buildings in the middle of plots and instead ensure that each becomes a component contributing to the street scene.