“In the historic structure (a), arteriality is geared to the local street – a ‘people place’ – whereas in the modern structure (b), arteriality is geared to the national road traffic network.” – Stephen Marshall, Street and Patterns
Using new spatial software I recently tested a local district to reveal its theoretical spatial integration. The results correlate strongly with what appears to be highly functioning, walkable, historic, neighbourhood centres – ones that most people would consider good ‘places’ and also likely fetch a real estate premium. Many of these places with good bones unfortunately, also now serve more modern uses as anciallary motorway support systems.
In the early 20th century street movement was slow due to the nature of the transportaton so that the spatial integration of the streetcar suburbs was naturally higher. Today all of these rare (and valuable) people places are compromised by poor street design. In my earlier post, many commenters stated that while nice places, the neigbourhood centres need “traffic calming”. This is an understatement.
From what I observe there are few streets in Auckland that are not entirely over-engineered for the benefit of long distance travel (Grids Gone Wild, Slow Down, Finding Lost Space) to the detriment of local movement. The historic isthmus neighbourhoods and streets have been masterfully re-designed (via Canberra) to privilege the long trip, shaving seconds, maybe even minutes off commute time. So if you live in Avondale, you can get to the CBD a minute faster. If you live in Titirangi, you’re blessed,- your winding car commute to the CBD through several town centres, and residential neighbourhoods is as efficient as a local expressway. Cut through Franklin Rd and you will be slowed only by fearless pedestrians who are subjugated to a mid-20th century legal status. If you’re trying to walk across your local street, unfortunately, you are out of luck.
As part of the modernistic planning era that atomised the value of the city across the landscape, traffic designs have bastardised the local grid system to a level that today would be unrecogniseable to our grandparents. High speeds, lack of pedestrian crossings and even gaps in vehicle traffic that would be introduced by normal intersections create auto sewers severing the traditional “movement economy” intrinsic in pre-1950 suburbs.
The physical connectedness, links and nodes, that I calculated theoretically actually represent the ability of people to move around in particular by foot, but also by bike, PT and even short car trips. The connections form the structure of city-ness. Where this structure is more reticulated and connected-up in layers of networks, mostly based on people movement, you find the highest real estate values and productivity. One place that stands out as very red (high) in my analysis is the Ponsonby Road corridor. The road is highly connected with smaller blocks and is privileged by a historic street constitution (streets lead to it in a connected-up heirarchy). Thankfully, the distance from the motorway allows it to retain it’s neighbourhod centrality compared to places like Great North Road and New North Road that sit within the motorway’s border vacuum and have since been transformed to lower value, auto-oriented uses such as drive-throughs, storage yards, and antique stores.
As lively as Ponsonby Road is today, its current design does not leverage its natural advantages. Today the street functions more closely to this diagram (via Nikos Salingaros).
Here is another graphic depiction of what has happened to our streets and neighbourhoods, this one by Patrick Kennedy of Walkable DFW who has written several must read posts over the last few weeks, including my favourite blog post of the summer: Why Grids Matter and We Should Recreate Them at All Costs (strictly for the ROI) where he writes:
The dendritic system concentrates the bad, while dispersing the good. The reticulated, network approach concentrates the good, in densely connected, walkable areas while dispersing the bad (like high speed traffic or low intensity industrial uses to the periphery)
Ponsonby Road is a great example of the urban inversion or “cataclysm of modernism”. The traditional neighbourhood structure has been radically changed from a network of connected up streets all leading to the most important streets (tradtional arteriality) to a modern heirarchical conception of arterials that function as tributaries delivering users to access roads or other subordinate places typically devoid of street life.
Back down to street level, Ponsonby Road suffers from it slavish work for long distance movement- it is primarily now a motorway on-ramp. In addition to squeezing every inch of real estate to provide vehicle capacity on a road that was once a simple 2-lane with streetcar, there is also a lack of intersections or even proper pedestrian crossings, the things that provide the actual spatial integration by which real estate value is created, and urban accessibility is facilitated.
This is a typical scene on Ponsonby Road where people cross on their own accord. This is how people naturally want to move about, but are now forced to wait for the rare gaps in the flow of traffic, and commit to a level of risk that would be unacceptable for children or less able-bodied people.
Here is a photo of a woman and a baby perched on a mid-block crossing amongst 4-lanes of traffic. In Auckland these mid-block crossings are considered a pedestrian amenity.
And to add my own doodle – here’s the theoretical connectivity of Ponsonby Road compared to the way I think it works. The street connectivity is severely constrained by the lack of safe pedestrian crossings and of course the tremendous volume of through traffic. The simplification of the network , one that begins to resemble super-blocks, is a disurban creation leading increasingly to a real estate “race-to-the-bottom” as Patrick Kennedy calls it.
Ponsonby Road may not be the easiest example of how sensitive land use is to pedestrian accessibility since it still retains some semblance of urban functionality and value. There are more stark examples of streets beyond repair such as everyone’s favourite basket case Nelson Street and about a dozen more leading to and through the CBD. Increasingly it is becoming evident how much value we can capture if we return to a traditional understanding of how streets work in an urban context. Of course many of these principles rub up strongly against the modernistic transportation planning objectives of capacity and efficiency.