Find out how streets are capable of making a city

Find out how streets are capable of making a cityImage Credit: Supplied

You can tell a city by its streets. The zeitgeist of urban settlements largely plays out in its streets — notwithstanding the typically indoor-associated elements of music, dance, arts and food. No other single element of a city showcases so much of its character and identity and commands so much space. Typically, streets occupy about a third of a settlement's sprawl — that's most of all the al fresco or outdoor space in urban settlements.

Streets have been the traditional stage for urban daily life, facilitating human interactions, recreation, leisure and learning — experiences that form memories and identity. The more central a street is in a settlement, the greater multitude of functions it offers.

Key city-centre streets transcend their original role as mere thoroughfares and become destinations themselves, focusing the best of human creativity and activity in them. Some vibrant boulevards mix people, transport, pedestrian facilities, landscape, recreation and leisure activities, active building frontages and iconic landmarks. Such key streets form a dominant memory of cities.

Much of Europe's historic streets are live open-air museums with contemporary life buzzing amid historic settings. Streets oriented to the ''human-scale'' in most European towns during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance have mostly remained as such, with progressive human activity sensitively adapting to them.

Even the global proliferation of the automobile over the past decades has been contained and harmoniously integrated with the traditional street context in Europe. This has come about solely founded on the culture of respecting pedestrian freedom and safety.

Several lessons in successful community life and planning are inspired by the old streets of Europe. A few observations elucidate interesting fundamental concepts.

Equal stakeholders

Historically, streets have inherently evolved at the human scale — allowing people and horse riders to pass amid gossiping residents and onlookers. The dimensions of a street and the height of abutting buildings were largely determined by slow-moving commuters, daily outdoor socials and building technology. The resulting scale enabled all users to be equal stakeholders of their urban surroundings.

Most European old-town streets reflect this basic aspect of a comfortable human scale.

It is remarkable how well the frantic pace and demands of contemporary urban life have snugly adapted to these historic streets — balancing the needs of high-capacity transport with comfortable and safe pedestrian realms. Expectedly, underground modes of transport have emerged in many cities, often with links to the streets above. Complementing the buzzing underground life are onstreet transport systems, including buses, trams, private vehicles and bicycles — all harmoniously sharing the streets with humans on foot.

This harmony demonstrates a key principle of successful streets: the compatibility of the respective speeds of the mobile elements sharing the same street, with none a threat to the other.

With the balance of scale and speed, some streets celebrate their prime users by placing them on the centre stage. Not many others do this better than La Rambla in Barcelona, Unter den Linden in Berlin, Strandvagen in Stockholm and Esplanadi in Helsinki where people are given their rightful place at the centre of the public realm. Tamed vehicular movement, peripheral sidewalks and retail spillovers all coexist.

Allowing people to stroll at the centre of a multi-activity public realm is likely the greatest achievement of a street.

Scale, speed and people strolling are functionally and psychologically often what it takes to ensure a great street. An additional element of sensation or spectacle adds to the uniqueness and the identity of a street that probably etches the strongest impression.

It's what Arc de Triomphe does to Champs-Élysées in Paris, what Brandenburg Gate imparts to Unter den Linden in Berlin, what Marble Arch means for Oxford Street in London or what Royal Palace and University of Oslo lend to Karl Johans Gate in Oslo. It's the spectacle or sensational built-form element, whose presence dominates the identity of the street and, therefore, often becomes the picture postcard of the place.

In Dubai

It's worth drawing these observations from memorable European streets to Dubai's context, as the emirate emerges as an international trading, logistics and aviation hub of global standing. Dubai is also a popular tourist destination with several spectacular sights.

This urges one to ask how well the dots are connected in terms of ''walkability'' and public transport, more aptly in times of progressive carbon-reduction and liveability indexes. And what about the great streets?

Dubai has had a special history of souqs, which were in fact shaded and passively climate-controlled pedestrian streets through bazaars. They certainly tick the right boxes in terms of scale, speed and ''strollability'', with the characteristic wind towers serving as landmarks. During pre-automobile times, these were great streets.

Difficult choice

Today, while one is spoilt for choice for tourist and retail destinations, one might still struggle to recommend a boulevard that stands as an epitome of Dubai. The picture postcard of the emirate is still its lofty towers, amazing musical fountains, manmade islands and glamorous international events — not streets buzzing with people.

Some streets, however, are a good case in point. The Emaar Boulevard circling the Burj Khalifa is being developed as a retail and dining frenzy destination amid undoubtedly iconic and spectacular architectural ambiance.

Raised pedestrian crossings, wide walkways, cycle facilities, underground public parking, controlled vehicular speeds and themed architectural façades have lent credence to a potentially memorable street.

The absence of a high capacity public transport through the corridor is a bummer and results in undesirable traffic during busy diurnal times. But the street is certainly a key part of the ''most prestigious square kilometre on the planet'' and making it a bit more strollfriendly with additional landscaping and shading features might make the difference.

Lacking in scale

The Walk in Jumeirah Beach Residence is another contender for Dubai's most memorable street. The mixed-use functional ambiance of hotels, residences, dining, retail and temporary events create a dynamic and active pedestrian corridor, but getting there is still a concern for most outsiders. Certainly a strolling destination, but a few elements of scale and accessibility fall short.

There are myriad walkable retail streets in Dubai and a few great pedestrian places, but none yet at the iconic level of those I have cited. Amid the ongoing frantic development in Dubai, some street-oriented projects will be a refreshing break from the usual gloss of iconic buildings.

Some cities, such as Copenhagen, market themselves showing mothers on bicycles with the toddlers in tow. Imagine the difference.

Did you know - Nakheel appoints contractor for Dh150-million Boardwalk

Source: Rupak Chatterjee, Special to Property Weekly

Rupak Chatterjee is Principal Urban Planner at Ramboll—UAE


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