It is coming up to the end of the year and time to seriously think about who will be getting the “Gordies” for the best urban Vancouver news story, the most disastrous, and of course the most odd. Meanwhile the very good folks at Strong Towns  have been doing some thoughtful thinking too about how to create better roads and streets. And they have come up with some direct principles and some pointed facts.

Quoting Chuck Marohn: “Most cities right now just give their street design work to their city engineer or (worse) public works office and let them run with it. You get the engineering value system; it’s built in, despite being contrary to the community’s values. Then there is all this tension when the design is despotic or expensive. Public hearing processes have been set up to (superficially) diffuse the tension, but it doesn’t get at the core problem: we should not start street design with the values of the engineering profession”.


My recommendation on street design is to delegate it to the member of your staff, or the department, that is best at working with people. Let them work with everyone on the street to identify common values and objectives, as well as constraints and concerns, and then come up with a conceptual design. Only then bring in the engineer and only to work out the technical details (eg. pavement thickness). Street must be designed by everyone.  “

By involving people from different disciplines to work with the engineers who are building a street to be-well, as street, get someone else that is great at public process and building the thematic purpose and programming that will be occurring on a street. It was the concept that was used by the City of Vancouver in instigating greenways, which was a multidisciplinary team that looked at how to advance the practice of bio swales and ecological demonstration projects, traffic calming, and championing walking/ biking for over one hundred kilometers  within the city owned portion of the streets, parks and public spaces.

Chuck Marohn’s principles are as follows:

1.Roads connect productive places, streets are “platforms for building wealth. On a street, we’re attempting to grow the complex ecosystem that produces community wealth. In these environments, people (outside of their automobile) are the indicator species of success”.

2.Streets that produce wealth are complex and organic, and the property use around them is not static.The property use also will dictate the width of the street and how the street is used by all road users.

3. If people are the indicator species of success, design the street so it is leafy and beautiful and people choose to recreate and hang out on it.

4. Streets are not car serving roads-they are a collective endeavour  that incorporate “the people who live on it, those who own property on it, those who traverse it as well as the myriad of professionals who have expertise they can lend to the discussion”.

In short, Strong Towns is asking us to think of roads as organic places that are activated by the community and by the land use surrounding it, responsive and dynamic, ensuring that they are people friendly and constantly updated to reflect property owners’ needs. “When you are trying to build a street — when you are trying to make your city wealthier and more prosperous — make your engineer one small voice in a larger chorus of people whose words and, especially, whose actions dictate what your design should be”.  It’s a  paradigm for a new way of looking at streets as if they truly did belong to all users in a community.