area 130 | gathering places

Main streets are the most obvious urban infrastructures that have been there from the very beginning of cities and which still today form the backbone of every urban region. Throughout the history of European cities they have been transformed from connecting spaces to dividing spaces as the car gained more and more importance in the 20th century. In the past years we can in many cities observe a radical re-definition of this crucial infrastructure: streets are relieved of car traffic and are being handed back to pedestrians and cyclists through a variety of measures touching on the fields of urban design, public space design and transport planning. Thus there is the chance that they are becoming connecting spaces again. In the wake of climate change and the so-called “energy turnaround”, which will be one of the most daunting challenges to face European cities in the years to come, it is a key task to turn these urban infrastructures into connective urban hubs. This energy turnaround will not only mean a farewell to an era of nuclear energy, but also saying goodbye to cheap oil and to many of the much-loved features that went along with it, for example mass motorisation based on fossil fuel. Main streets differ from usual streets as they are connecting spaces in various ways: They tie together and connect adjacent neighbourhoods and – as radial streets – also connect the different parts of the city region.

Urban main streets in 1910: connecting spaces
From Antiquity through to Modern Age the urban main street was a space for multiple purposes – a place for urban life, for trade, a venue for spectacular events. It was a key space for representation, not only of the goods displayed in ground floor shops, but also regarding the buildings on the sides of the streets – commercial buildings and housing, but also public buildings such as town halls, post offices or libraries.

Until 1910 the main street was rapidly developing as a key component of most cities in Europe and the United States. The street connecting the historic urban core with the new railway stations became the most important and expensive street in many cities. Of similar importance were the radial streets, which throughout history had connected the city with its surrounding towns and rural villages and which were forming the arteries along which the urban region grew. These radial streets developed into important hubs for public and municipal services, shopping and cultural activities, often accommodated in impressive buildings. Later on they were also flanked by public transport; the underground, trams and commuter trains. In most cases the municipalities were responsible for construction and maintenance of the streets, whereas private developers constructed the buildings alongside the streets.

Before the advent of the car the main streets were really thriving. They served as transit spaces as well as spaces to linger, mostly for pedestrians but also for people using public transport and private vehicles. They tied together and structured the vast city region – in terms of transport but also in the minds of its inhabitants and visitors. People took pride in them and strongly identified with “their” local high street.

Urban main streets in 1960: dividing spaces
Fifty years later, this situation and especially the function of the streets had changed drastically. In the western world, the car had become available and affordable to most citizens. Restructuring cities according to the vision of the car-oriented city had become a main driver of urban design. Huge amounts of public money were used to turn streets from connecting spaces into dividing spaces, which focused on mass motorisation.

The consequences of this turn were dramatic: the width of sidewalks was reduced, plants such as trees or flowerbeds were eliminated, and in order to facilitate a smooth flow of traffic even tunnels or elevated roads were constructed, which separated entire neighbourhoods from each other. In the following decades the car dominated many urban public spaces. Noise, pollution and dangers associated with car traffic contributed to the deterioration of the main streets. In Germany these developments took place with a special force: Politicians and planners used the “chances” posed by wartime destruction to radically drive forward the urban vision of the car-oriented city. The city of Berlin can be considered a prime example of this extensive adaptation process. Streets and squares have been widened to fit the needs of the car and in order to guarantee smooth traffic flow. Urban motorways have been cut through the urban fabric, in many cases through dense inner city quarters. As a result of these processes, neighbourhoods lost their lively centres and were split up. Many users were driven away from the streets: local shops had to compete with car-oriented shopping malls, and busy traffic often makes the street an uninviting place to sit and have a coffee. Nowadays the flats above shops are often looked on as the least attractive places to live. Many large buildings are abandoned, especially those dating from the 1960s and 1970s such as department stores, indoor markets or rather unattractive office buildings. And because people living in the adjacent neighbourhoods often strongly identify with “their” radial street, if the street prospers or deteriorates, this is seen as mirroring the structure of the areas in their vicinity.

Urban main streets in 2010: reconnecting spaces
But today, another 50 years later, the situation is once again about to change: climate change and the necessity to reconsider how energy is being consumed influence people’s behaviour regarding the use of urban transport infrastructures and especially the streets. A new urban mobility of the post fossil fuel era is gaining importance such as cycling, walking and public transport. The car is loosing its appeal as a status symbol. Leisure activities are changing as well and many cities are aiming at copying Mediterranean lifestyles as their inhabitants and visitors increasingly want to sit in public spaces to enjoy a coffee or want to stroll along the streets and enjoy the urban atmosphere. But redefining urban streets and urban mobility also is a social issue: as our society gets older and costs for petrol are rising, urban structures based on car transport are no longer affordable and very unfair for people who are – because of their age for example – no longer able to drive. These challenges show that the existing urban structure will have to be adapted and enhanced so that it will be resilient to climate change and allow for a sustainable lifestyle. But what will the urban street look like in the future? New approaches in urban design will have to be developed to address two key tasks: firstly, large proportions of urban transport infrastructures such as streets and (urban) highways, but also their surrounding car-oriented hinterlands have to be adapted to the new circumstances. Secondly, a new sustainable urban mobility has to be promoted. Both of these tasks are closely linked and have to be looked at in an integrated manner. Vehicles will have to emit less noise and dirt while at the same time being more energy efficient. Public spaces will need to be improved and switching between different types of sustainable transport will need to be a lot easier than today.
In order to become connecting spaces once again, urban streets will have to serve all kinds of transport – but in a much more balanced manner. Public transport, cycling and especially pedestrians need priority and streets have to be re-designed in order to mirror this shift. People must be given more reasons but also more possibilities to cross the streets so that these linear spaces will be reclaimed by pedestrians. The full potential of intermodal hubs should be realized by making public spaces surrounding them more attractive and convenient to use and by concentrating other important facilities, such as libraries close to these “knots”. Public spaces and parks along the streets should be upgraded and connected with other green and blue infrastructures in order to strengthen alternative connections.  Along many radial streets, one can find numerous defunct department stores or other public buildings which need new uses so that high streets can prosper once again. Public uses such as libraries, learning and community centres should be concentrated along the high streets in order to make best use of their excellent public transport connections and the strong local identity they embody. All these measures can contribute to main streets become the heart of the communities and true connecting spaces once again.
Outside the city centre, in the suburban periphery, the dividing character of large streets was and still even stronger. It is a great challenge for planners to come up with concepts of how to transform streets towards the edge of the cities. It is necessary to develop ideas for infill and intensification of uses for main streets made up of large scale retail units, drive-in restaurants and suburban housing developments. We need model projects that demonstrate how local centres can be established through small interventions that strengthen the local economy and make them attractive and accessible for pedestrians and cyclists also in the suburbs.
The high number of cities which currently come up with similar strategies to make their high streets more walkable, mixed and sustainable, show that this is a topic of great relevance. Cities such as Copenhagen, London, Paris, but also New York and Los Angeles have already demonstrated a great will to experiment and to test out new approaches to deal with streets to create a sustainable city region. There seems to be a similar movement in Rome today, which not only looks at pedestrian zones.One key aspect of all these measures is to unite spatial design with transport planning. Turning streets into connecting spaces will only succeed when integrated approaches are being taken and when transport planning, the design of public spaces or the regeneration of local town centres are being looked at with concerted efforts. Thus this important challenge can also contribute to improve connections between the different professional disciplines of urban planning such as architects, transport planners or urban designers.

* The text is based on various publications and presentations which the authors have developed in cooperation with Aljoscha Hofmann and Hildebrand Machleidt, especially: Bodenschatz, Harald/Hofmann, Aljoscha/Polinna, Cordelia (ed.): Radialer Städtebau. Abschied von der autogerechten Stadtregion. DOM Publishers, Berlin 2013 (forthcoming)

Prof. Dr. Harald Bodenschatz, sociologist and urban planner, was full Professor for Sociology of Architecture and Urban Planning from 1995-2011 and is now member of the Center for Metropolitan Studies at the Technische Universität Berlin. He is author/coauthor of a wealth of books on urban issues, including “Städtebau im Schatten Stalins” (2003), “Smart Growth - New Urbanism - Liveable Communities” (2004), “Renaissance der Mitte - Zentrumsumbau in London und Berlin“ (2005), “Städtebau für Mussolini“ (2011), and the latest “Berlin Urban Design. A Brief History of a European City” (2013). His research projects are related to history of urban design and post-industrial urban design. He is member of the editorial board of the periodicals “Forum Stadt”, “Deutsches Architektenblatt” and “Journal of Urbanism”.

Cordelia Polinna studied Town and Country Planning and Urban Design in Berlin and Edinburgh. She did her PhD. (Dr. Ing.) on “Towards a London Renaissance: A shift in the urban design paradigm in London”. She has been teaching and researching at TU Berlin, TU Munich and New York University. Cordelia Polinna is a founder of the planning initiative “Think Berl!n” and of the consultancy Polinna Hauck Landscape + Urbanism. From 10/2011 – 09/2013 she was Visiting Professor of Sociology of Architecture and Planning at TU Berlin. Her work focuses on strategies for coping with the car-oriented city, urban design quality and International Building Exhibitions. She is a member of the academic steering committee for Berlin’s spatial development strategy “StEK 2030”.