Tag Archives: streetscape

Green Wave for Cyclists – Would it Work in Your City?

Does it  make your blood boil when you’re driving and you see cyclists running red lights? This topic is a terrific conversation starter and friendship-ender and not many people sit on the fence.

Whilst I can see things from both points of view, the issue of ‘safety’ makes it a bit of a no-brainer – running red lights in any mode just isn’t safe. But having to stop at up to a dozen or more red lights when cycling through the city also defeats the purpose somewhat. So, what’s the solution? [because there always is one]

The Danes, being such a suave and design-focussed lot, have come up with a way to get rid of red lights for cyclists. And it hardly cost them a cent. They simply re-programmed the traffic lights to create a ‘green wave’ during peak periods.


If cyclists are happy to cruise along at 20km/hr they’ll get a continuous run of green lights all the way into town. Throw in a bit of signage, road markings and driver awareness communications, and you’ve got an elegant solution to an inflammatory problem. Check out the official Danish web site for other cool stuff they’re doing in the ‘World’s first Bike City’. Also fun to watch this video from someone riding into Copenhagen – astounding to see how many people cycle!

copenhagen cycling 01

So right now  you’re probably saying ‘but that’s too slow for cars!’… well, the average driving speed in metropolitan Sydney [i.e. all of Sydney, not just the CBD] is around 32km/hr during peak periods. I couldn’t find CBD-specific data but from experience it’s even less than this.

Amsterdam has them. San Diego has followed suit. New York City is working on it for Prince St. Perhaps even major urban developments could be brokering this re-programming as part of improving the value  of their project?

Do you think Green Waves would work in your city?


A City Resilience (Liveability) Survey

We regularly hear about some city that has just been awarded the ‘world’s most livable city’ award, of some description. Even my home town of Adelaide got into a No.1 spot last year [Lonely Planet ‘best in travel’… must be the wine?]… and I’ve always wondered how these conclusions are reached (and I’ll leave Adelaide alone… they have enough to contend with ; )

After a bit of digging it’s apparent that these ‘surveys’ are of course biased towards the audience of whoever has sponsored the survey, e.g. an automobile association might survey its members and conclude that a car-centric city is superior to one that has a focus on walkability.

city economist

one of the many surveys

Even when searching for a globally fair ‘livability’ index it’s apparent that it will never be completely objective or fair, unless the survey takes into account how the people of that city or community actually feel about where they live.

My search led me to a really handy ‘city resilience’ survey. The principle here is that ‘livability’ is so nebulous that it’s difficult to even brief for and design to – it means different things to different people, however when we place more focus on the living community it becomes more of a discussion about community and city resilience.

resilience survey

image from ‘City Resilient’ by Partners for Livable Communities

This city resilience survey – or ‘Community Scorecard’, by Partners for Livable Communities provides a well written plain-language survey that is tailored specifically for community engagement. The survey assesses 5 qualities that comprise ‘resilience’;

  1. Economy – jobs, innovation, talent attraction, economic base
  2. Environment – resource efficiency, consumption, air and water quality, access to the outdoors
  3. Education – high quality public education access, learning programs
  4. Health & Safety – physical and mental health
  5. Quality of Life – community care, interaction, open-ness to ideas

If you’re in a role where ‘livability’ is part of the challenge, or if you simply want to gain a better understanding of what makes a strong and resilient community, the web site and the survey are a good read and easy to digest.

And here’s the challenge – you need to get a total score of at least 110 in order for your community to be considered ‘resilient’… see how you go.

Resilience Through Placemaking

A common thread found in Resilience theory is that of community strength. A community’s ability to survive and even thrive during tough times is largely decided both in the way that community builds itself around its physical places and also in the way people work and band together to create those spaces.

The art of place-making is arguably the best demonstration of community resilience at work. By definition placemaking involves the residents of a community – it’s not the product of an architect’s pen but rather the result of a community-designer-builder collaboration over time.


image from the Quicker, Lighter, Cheaper post

The Project for Public Spaces is a great placemaking blog with a recent post titled The 7 Psychological Functions of the Art of Placemaking. An interesting take on one of Alain de Botton’s latest works and worth a read. You’ll need to hit the link to get the discussion behind each of the functions.

The 7 Functions are;

  1. Remembering
  2. Hope
  3. Sorrow
  4. Re-Balancing
  5. Self-Understanding
  6. Growth
  7. Appreciation

While the place is important, the “making” builds connections, creates civic engagement, and empowers citizens—in short, it builds social capital. As architect Mark Lakeman of Portland’s City Repair organization puts it, “the physical projects are just an excuse for people to meet their neighbors.” … The relationships that grow out of the “making” are equal to, if not more important than, the places that result. (MIT’s recently-released white paper Places in the Making)

Grass roots resilience – no need for funding or white papers or green papers or drawn out consultancies. It’s just people like you and I getting on with realising great ideas in the spirit of placemaking start-ups.

SITES – Could it Fill The Gap Between Our Rating Tools?

If you’re familiar with the mainstream ‘green building’ rating tools you’ll know that landscape is often captured within one or two credits amongst the entire tool, and there is generally nothing that rewards good place making.

There’s a case for putting more emphasis on the landscape for the following two reasons;

  1. The landscape we create externally to the building often has the potential for ecological good that far outweighs what the building is doing, and
  2. It’s the landscape (and building edges) that creates our public space – indeed the spaces external to our green buildings are the canvas for our experiences of the city.

The Sustainable Sites Initiative from the American Society of Landscape Architects is a terrific ‘public spaces’ and landscape guide and certification tool. It addresses the full bottle of landscape opportunities and includes a ‘Site Design – Human Health and Wellbeing’ category which gets right into the detail of place making.


Check out the site during some me-time on your Friday. The rating tool guide and supporting Case for Sustainable Landscapes are written in clear language and include great overviews of landscape and ecological principles.

sites 2

At risk of introducing another rating tool, SITES seems to fit nicely between our current suite of green building and green infrastructure certification schemes. Even if you don’t follow the certification pathway there is some great intel in this one.

Front Yard Blitz #03 – Enter The Woonerf

Count up how many streets you know of where parents would let their kids play without supervision – and I mean play ON the street. How many did you get?

I got zero. The street where I live has about 30 houses in it, most of which have small children – there are about 20 kids under 12 in the street, yet they never play in the street simply because it isn’t safe. Despite our street being a poor connector and therefore having low traffic, motorists still hit 50km/h and don’t slow down even when there are pedestrians present or children riding their bikes on the footpaths.

This instalment of the Front Yard Blitz aims to reclaim the neighbourhood street as a shared space. The sheer amount of land area devoted purely to the car is obscene – research shows (this is a good paper – worth a read) that roughly 20%-25% of total urban land area is devoted to roads, and that doesn’t include car parks, car-related retail and facilities etc.

The Woonerf (Dutch translation as ‘living yard’) is a shared street designed to allow cars and pedestrians to co-exist. This is a ‘living street’ where pedestrians and cyclists have legal priority over motorists. In the UK they’re called ‘home zones’ and the US ‘complete streets’.


The concept is simple; a combination of street narrowing, traffic calming, landscaping, surface treatments, signage and place making all combine to make the street a ‘pedestrian zone where cars are permitted’, and for most of our suburban streets this can be easily achieved within the existing carriageway widths. And motorists must drive at walking speed.


The slowing down of cars is the key enabler – from this we open up huge tracts of area that can be put to better use. The US Federal Highway Administration has a good primer on Traffic Calming – this plan gives ideas on how a reduced street might be activated;

woonerf plan

If you’re dubious about the speed limit thing – check out a previous post that might put things in perspective.

By reconfiguring our streets we open up a number of opportunities, such as

  • reduced paved area and runoff, requiring less stormwater management and reducing heat island impacts
  • increased habitat
  • improved street appearance with more trees and gardens
  • increased socialisation and re-activated streets where children can play and families can congregate (also leading to improved passive surveillance and reduced crime)
  • reduced traffic noise
  • increased safety for pedestrians

The Woonerf only works for lower traffic streets, but amongst the various design elements and approaches lie solutions for all streets – it’s a matter of appropriate interventions to suit the street. A good case study is the Borderline Neighbourhood Living Street project – the 6 year $2.1M project was a big task but the multiple benefits extend all the way into a tighter and happier community.

So, we’ve managed to get the power lines underground, reduce most of our stormwater outflow, and now we’ve dealt with street widths and traffic which creates the maximum opportunities for what comes next.

Stay tuned.

Front Yard Blitz #02 – 10% Stormwater Runoff

So we’ve managed to get the overhead wires underground – what’s the next step in our green street refurbishment? There are a few options but it’s good practice to work from underground upwards, so let’s sort out our stormwater situation.

A few facts before we go on;

  • Rainwater = generally defined as ‘rain’ that has fallen but contains little or no dissolved matter or soil – so it’s generally what we can catch on roofs;
  • Stormwater = essentially rainwater that is running off over land, and the main source of downstream water pollution;
  • Sewage = from toilets and the like. In Australia the sewer and stormwater mains are required to be physically separated.

A typical residential neighbourhood will see around 55% of all of its rainfall leaving as stormwater runoff. In more built up urban areas it reaches up to 95%.  This runoff picks up contaminants along the way, sending everything to the nearest waterways. Two major problems here; loss of a valuable resource, and the downstream pollution (which can’t be fixed downstream).

Reducing our stormwater runoff to 10% (and you can aim even lower) requires a series of interventions, all of which add some value for homeowners (and I’ve chosen some dowdy images simply to demonstrate how easy some of the interventions can be);

Rainwater Harvesting – Adding a rainwater tank pulls out a certain amount of the total water flow – plumbing this back into landscape irrigation or toilet flushing saves you some water costs and adds value to your landscape (worth up to 10% of your home’s value). There are so many tank types around now that you could fit one almost anywhere. Keep using the water! This effectively increases the tank’s capacity.


Rain Gardens and Swales – rather than sending your excess rainwater off-site (and usually into the street gutters), slow it down and let it soak into the ground (more landscape benefits). Rain-gardens alone can strip out the majority of the stormwater runoff, and will take most of the pollutants out as well. When approached with design intent these gardens can become great additions to a landscape scheme – you might need help with ensuring that you don’t set up local flooding instead! (inlet-outlet invert levels etc.). Think of a ‘rain garden’ as a planted pond that only fills up during rain, and a ‘swale’ as a planted open spoon drain.


Street Rain Gardens – a great way to re-vegetate the public space and treat almost all of the stormwater. Check these out; rain garden retrofit and green streets for a cleaner harbour.

Soft Kerbs – ever watched all that stormwater running down the street in the gutters and wondering if there’s a better way? Soft kerbs can be suitable as part of the street rain garden retrofit, allowing stormwater an easier path into soft ground. This one requires considerations around traffic & safety and is typically only suited to local low-traffic streets, but streets with soft kerbs often have that something ‘special’ about them.

soft kerbs

These first two Blitz steps go hand-in-hand – removing the overhead wires allows us to get some serious planting into the street, and the stormwater bounty supports a much richer landscape.

Our next instalments will cover street trees and traffic calming.

Front Yard Blitz #1 – Undergrounding the Cables

I’ve had enough of these crazy backyard-renovation-blitz shows. Never do they pay attention to streetscape, neighbourhood, place making or community. They don’t create any legacy. So I’m running my own series right here – the Front Yard Blitz series.

The goal is to see how we might refurbish our suburban streets to become more resilient, more engaging, environmentally restorative and maybe even healthy for us.

This first instalment looks at the dog’s breakfast of overhead power cables lining most existing neighbourhood streets.

In 1838 Samuel Morse kicked off the telegraph revolution and still today we’re adding more junk to the very same infrastructure that was built for the telegraph. The reason we’re not witnessing a nation-wide project to put it all underground is mostly due to up-front cost.


For reasons that will become clear, getting the cables underground is perhaps the key enabler for this green street project. Besides the reduction in storm damage, reduced road deaths and bushfires, if we can get the cables underground it lets us proceed with a whole range of value-adds which we’ll explore as we go.

So the question is, ‘how much?’.

I’ve found a range of figures online for Australia, and the average cost per-household seems to be around $12,000. Of course this is based on a range of assumptions and conditions, and for the sake of argument let’s say $15,000 per household for a typical suburban neighbourhood with detached or semi-detached homes.

This might go up or down depending on what other works are being undertaken at the time, e.g. footpath or road resurfacing. Some utilities require you to pay the entire bill (e.g. Ausgrid) whilst others (e.g. Western Power in south-west Western Australia) might pay 25%. Local Councils will also usually chip in, sometimes up to 50%, and some State Governments also contribute up to 25%. Naturally I’m too time-pressed to research all of this across all of Australia, but the punchline seems to be that you’d be unlucky to have to pay the entire cost yourself.

In Perth the cost for the resident is down to around $4,500 thanks to the multi-agency contributions. I haven’t been able to determine whether or not this includes the cables from the street to the homes, so there may be some additional cost.

So would you pay $15,000 (assuming no funding support) just to get the cables underground? And what chance do you have of getting the majority of residents in your street to do the same (which is required before the project can proceed)?

An Australian National University study concluded that putting the powerlines underground can increase a home’s value by 3%, which is for example a $15,000 rise on a $500,000 property. ‘Money for jam’ as they say. Street presentation is one of the first selling points in real estate, so a street without all that junk in the air always stands a better chance.

In the next posts we’ll start to explore what is possible if we can remove the encumbrance of the overhead cables.

Information sources;