‘LINK AND PLACE’ WON’T SAVE OUR STREETS

MURRAY WEST | TRANSPORT ENGINEER & PLANNER, MRCagney
Streets essentially have two competing purposes: as links for cars and as places for people. As a truism to be stapled to the collective forehead of the traffic engineering industry, the ‘link and place’ concept is of great value. An effective transition into quality planning policy, however, has yet to be achieved, with tell-tale signs that increased vehicle traffic will continue to undermine the creation of great, vibrant streets for people.

For the uninitiated, the link and place concept was introduced as a design rationale by Jones et al (2007) in their acclaimed book, “Link and Place: A guide to street planning and design”. Here, ‘link’ value relates to a streets ability to facilitate primarily car movement, while the ‘place’ value refers to the value of the street as a place to sit, dine, play, and interact with the community. Following decades of urban development characterised by the primacy of car travel, the guide is one of the many attempts to halt the loss of vibrant main street environments to car-centric street design.  It’s a daunting read - but details a meticulous methodology for evaluating street design decisions based on ‘link’ and ‘place’ function priorities.

At its core is the arrangement of link/place value combinations in a street classification matrix (see image 3, whereby the columns correspond to the place value of the street and the rows correspond to link value, so that each cell of the table defines a unique link and place value combination (for example, local-link value, district-place value). It is this link and place value combination that informs the design of the street using the guide.

In the nine years since its publication, the ‘link and place’ concept defined by Jones et al has been adopted within a range of new street design guides and policies around the world from London to South Australia.  In Victoria, VicRoads is currently preparing a new street design policy that will use the ‘link and place’ model.   This would be fantastic if not for an unfortunate flaw: it evaluates each street’s link and place value to the city, not the people using the street.  As a result, well designed streets for people will only be destined for selected streets of city-significance, rather than flourishing as a regular city-wide feature. Business as usual in other words, and a fairly blunt clue that there’s some potency lacking in these new policies.

Ideally, a more ‘place’ focused design rationale will deliver human-centred main streets in cities and town centres – main streets are, after all, some of the busiest community spaces. But the litmus test of the link and place policy is what it means for local residential streets -  the most basic, common, yet most important public living spaces.  If ‘link and place’ can’t promise better local streets, then something is deeply wrong.

 

To demonstrate, let’s consider a typical residential street from a city-wide perspective and from the perspective of the people who spend the most time there, and the implications on design decisions.

 

Firstly, from a city-wide (or ‘network’) perspective, an individual residential street is essentially insignificant in terms of both link and place value. It’s simply not important to enough for people to warrant anything other than the lowest valuation of both link and place.  From the perspective of the resident, however, it’s a very high-place, low-link value street.  While it only needs to provide basic accessibility to fulfil the link component of its role, to the resident it is their most important public space. Does a shady and attractive walking environment entice them to walk to the shop rather than drive?  Will residents see more of their neighbours in the process?  Can kids ride or walk to school safely?  Can families play cricket in the middle of the street? These are ‘place’ factors that contribute heavily to quality of life.

Articulating the high-place, low-link value of the street helps engineers transparently prioritise street design elements. For instance, in an environment with scare space and money, street trees are more valuable than on-street parking; bike-paths and generous footpaths are more valuable than wide traffic lanes, and; kerb extensions and safe pedestrian crossings are more valuable than the easy manoeuvrability of the garbage truck.

In contrast, the low-link, low-place classification rendered by considering the city-wide or network perspective provides no such insight for engineers evaluating the value of various street elements competing for space and funds. It simply presents that a local street is of little value to the city relative to larger scale streets - yet neglects to offer any inherent clarity to help turn local streets into good local streets.

The place value of local streets is still marginalised in contemporary link and place design guidelines. This fact raises the red-flag that these streets will continue to over-cater to the needs of the car at the expense of walkable, liveable, vibrant neighbourhoods. 

 

The tragedy of this is that traffic engineers don’t need to ration good streets design, and there’s no reason to require a quorum before place value warrants consideration. Great streets can be created with limited resources if local governments stop overspending on the link function of the street network, and start to truly design streets that reflect the priorities of their most important stakeholders - starting with the people that live there.

 

issue 2. summer 2016

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