The Bottom-Line Patterns of Urban Street Design

A recent collaboration suggests that we should explicitly recognize historic patterns of pedestrian city settings in contemporary urban design and policies.

Historic Cours Mirabeau, a 440m walkable main street in Aix-en-Provence, France

Have you ever wondered why some places seem built for automobiles as opposed to humans?

In a recent study, J. Alexander Maxwell and fellow researchers from the University of Strathclyde's Urban Design Studies Unit found evidence that before the rise of the automobile, cities developed on a walkable "human" scale, with main streets that rarely exceeded 400 meters (a little more than 437 yards).

I recently joined Mr. Maxwell as co-author of an article in the London School of Economics and Political Science American Politics and Policy Blog. Together, we argue that this uniformity reveals an underlying pattern to pedestrian city settings, which merits renewed attention in contemporary urban design and policies.

As we note:

Some elements of our urban environments change relatively quickly over time. New shops replace old shops, new buildings replace old buildings, and people come and go. However, other elements are more permanent and often reflect the planning policies, design paradigms, and technologies of the times when they were built. In a sense, these surviving features provide snapshots of our urban histories.

Among the preliminary University of Strathclyde explorations was a test of the 400-m rule against 100 historically diverse main street networks from cities in 30 different countries around the world. Figures illustrate historic cases, including main street networks from groupings of ancient, medieval, renaissance, baroque and industrial study areas. Post-industrial cases included main street networks from groupings of Garden City, Radiant City, New Urbanism and informal settlement patterns of development.

The results of this empirical study suggest that the observational claims behind the 400-m rule are in fact true.

As a result, Mr. Maxwell and I suggest that the uniformity of the findings suggests an "effortless" expression of human tendencies -- a signature that should be honored by policy and design consistent with this established norm.

The study's conclusion illustrates typologies of liveable communities that attempt results that are very similar to the 400-m rule, and provides our specific call to action:

[M]ore conscious study is needed to tie together past and present. If underlying patterns of human-scale design in urban settings can be captured from historic environments and reapplied in contemporary policy and implementation contexts, then new purpose can be realized from past realities.

Read our London School of Economics and Political Science American Politics and Policy Blog article here.

Image composed by the author in Aix-en-Provence, France. Click on the image for more detail. © 2009-2014 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

This post first appeared in similar form in myurbanist, here and Planetizen, here.