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Movement and Place: the increasing gap between urbanism and road design

Transport agencies the length of the eastern seaboard have welcomed what is being called the “movement and place” approach into urban policy. It forms a big part, for example, of Transport for NSW’s recent Future Transport report. The premise of the approach is that there are two categories of street: one primarily for movement and one primarily for place. The result is a spectrum of possible street definitions with motorways at one end and pedestrian malls at the other.

The approach generally seeks to classify all urban streets using a two-dimensional movement/place matrix. Once categorised, performance measures are applied to identify aspects that are underperforming. Thus priorities for investment are formed and design can begin.

Sounds pretty straightforward. So straightforward, in fact, that this approach being championed by road designers has quickly made its way into city plans and transport strategies around Australia as a guiding principle.

However, I think the old adage “more haste, less speed” is applicable here. We need to explore the pitfalls associated with “movement and place” as a style of thinking before we jump into action to promote or implement the framework.

The style of thinking is essentially “modernist”. The dichotomy used as a basis for the movement and place framework is a modernist design ideal of the early 20th century ultimately promoting separation of functions. It is thus inconsistent with current trends in urbanism to integrate and embrace complexity in cities (largely the result of systems thinking, but also of community resistance to the anti-social effects of such separation).

We already know and have experienced the negative results of design and planning that seeks to segregate rather than integrate. Perhaps a good example comes from the concepts explored in Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse (Radiant City), which while touched by genius as abstractions, ultimately fail to produce places for people. The separation of function led to, in Lewis Mumford’s words, “buildings in a parking lot”.

Most cases of implementation of modernist development (which are usually pastiches of Corbusier by non-geniuses) have been labelled errors in social engineering and demolished. The point is: we’ve already tried the reductionist approach of confining movement to certain “links” and excluding it from “nodes” – it didn’t work.

We could debate the benefits and pitfalls of modernist thought from a design perspective for a very long time. The most pressing issue associated with a movement and place approach, in my opinion, is the potential for concentrated investment on either movement or place interventions, which will promote and strengthen what already exists.

Imagine Punt Road in Melbourne (or Parramatta Road in Sydney, Charles Street in Perth, and so on). We identify it as a street with primarily a movement function carrying 40,000 to 50,000 vehicles a day. We therefore invest in its movement function. The vehicle volumes increase. Definitions given by this framework suggest the place function decreases or at best stays the same. We therefore invest more in the movement function, while trying to appease the place advocates with pattern book interventions.

The net result of identifying a movement corridor and investing in car-based movement solutions is doubling down on existing problems leaving no chance for positive change in areas already suffering from an overemphasis on movement. The same argument can be made for a pedestrian mall. There is a risk of tending towards one-dimensional streets.

Better streets will get better and bad streets will get worse, which increases the gap between places that work for people and those that don’t. One implication is an increased equity gap. Property value in particular (reflecting air quality, noise, local services and so on) will further separate into two groups – those in “movement” corridors and those in “places”. No prizes for guessing which group will increase in value and which will decrease disproportionately.

I have a feeling that, politically, if people were asked whether they wanted to live in a movement corridor or a place then we would have a lot more emphasis on establishing places where transport and land use considerations were genuinely integrated.

Although there are criteria for street categorisation, the current process of designation does not include the community – the people it impacts most. The categorisation of streets is generally performed by traffic engineers, who through little fault of their own exist in institutional silos and are incentivised by the infrastructure appraisal process to preference vehicle speed (or throughput) over all else.

Perhaps my biggest concern is the potential for the framework to colonise and replace complex city thinking across disciplines by establishing a pattern book of solutions to meet any arbitrary categorisation. Welcome back to the future.

The big question for built environment practitioners: is it a backwards step in urbanism and one that is inconsistent with our contemporary cities approach?

On the face of it, the approach would seem to be inconsistent with what the best cities (such as Helsinki, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Amsterdam) are doing to promote integrated and locally specific thinking. Having said that, it’s import to iteratively progress to a two-dimensional view of streets and their contribution to the urban system.

What needs to be done?

There are clearly two emerging views on the approach. What I’ve written purposefully draws attention to the potential challenges. There are undoubtedly situations where a “movement and place” assessment could be a good entry point and might begin to break down established institutional silos.

My preference is for a planning and design process that embraces the complexity of streets, starting from an ambition to truly balance competing demands. You might call it a convergence of what makes a public place rather than a divergence. In the convergence case we would consider movement and place as interchangeable or at the very least consider movement as a part of place.

To embrace the complexity of cities that is increasingly valued, the movement and place framework might need a further iteration to better incorporate:

Value

Agencies are becoming increasingly required to generate funding. Therefore technical movement systems are increasingly connected to adjacent property values. People value complex places, so monocultures of transport aren’t as valuable as integrated solutions. More consideration of integrated transport and land use is needed if we are to take the place aspects of the framework seriously.

Technology

Fuel and control systems are fundamentally changing. Cleaner and quieter fuels will probably mean a convergence of uses previously required to be separated. User pays and autonomous systems of transport mean type and scale of movement corridors can be radically changed. Then over the horizon, literally and metaphorically, is airborne transport, for example the flying taxis of Dubai. Some cites will have three-dimensional movement structures: front doors on roofs, layers in the sky. More consideration of integrated technology is needed to explore the convergence of movement and place.

Health and wellbeing

One of the largest current urban issues in London and Paris is air quality, closely followed by mental wellbeing and the impact of noise. An overemphasis on vehicular movement in specific corridors establishes areas of low socioeconomic and health performance. Instead of segregating areas of movement and place, we could be seeking to limit the need for certain types of movement with integrated urban approaches to place. A complex decision needs to be made about whether or not we think the value of integrated places in a new economy will trump the value of “roads” in an old style economy.

“Movement and place” needs to be clear when place needs to be valued over “movement” and indeed when prioritisation of “movement” actually damages “places”. And that’s not a philosophical or abstract issue in cities like Sydney, but a very urgent one.

Hugh Gardner is a senior consultant at Arup.

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Comments

4 Responses to “Movement and Place: the increasing gap between urbanism and road design”

  • Russell says:

    Why not “Place and Movement”? It IS modernist to put the function first, and it’s destructive of place.

  • Z says:

    What Ash said.

    ‘Movement’ references the movement of people and goods. Not just vehicles.

    It should also be noted that prior to M&P, there would have been fewer structured considerations given to the place significance of roads in transport planning and management. In this context, the adoption of M&P should be seen as an attempt to approach transport from an integrated perspective. Which is a step forward.

    M&P recognises roads as serving the functions of being a movement conduit as well as being places where people spend time. These two functions are linked in such a way that simply promoting one function without affecting the other is difficult to say the least.

    I believe that the designation of M&P is not done in a blackbox environment. In Victoria at least, the process involves state and local governments as well as a whole host of stakeholders.

  • Ash says:

    Interesting perspective Hugh about where M&P is heading. Is this a NSW perspective?

    In Victoria, we think of “movement” as people movement, not just “vehicle” movement we are talking about – people on trams, people on buses, people crossing the road etc…. current and future.
    So M&P should help identify the gap for decision making.

  • Bernie says:

    Need more permanent 40kmh. Old 30mph rounds up to 40kmh. Did Aust choose USA35mph then round up to 60kmh? On kids walk and ride to school day, if you ask mum’s why kids don’t do it more often “traffic is too dangerous”. Traffic too noisy at 60 to hear any audio thru ear buds. Walking and cycling not pleasant. Thanks your storyline

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