The science of street life and the rebirth of the boulevard
Space Syntax Managing Director, Tim Stonor, has written a chapter in Cities of Opportunities – Connecting Culture and Innovation” a new book edited by Jason Pomeroy.
20th Century car-based planning led to the fragmentation of towns and cities. New construction was increasingly undertaken in separated enclaves, connected by fast, anti-pedestrian highways. The consequences of fragmented urbanism have been profoundly negative: low levels of physical activity among drivers and, for those unable to afford car travel, social and economic isolation have affected life chances.
The physical casualty of this process has been the mixed-use, mixed-mode, slow-speed environment of the urban boulevard. Throughout history, boulevards were the heart of social, economic and cultural productivity. However, modernist planning diminished their performance, repurposing them for fast-moving traffic. In new developments, boulevards were typically not created, with highways and pedestrianised precincts prevailing instead.
The direction that cities take – towards highways or boulevards – will determine their competitive strength. In planning future places, urban leaders can learn from the failure of 20th Century sprawl and re-introduce the productive, slow-speed boulevard. As a sophisticated undertaking, this requires careful coordination of skills and resources. Fortunately, science can help. Research into the performance of pedestrian-friendly boulevards shows that they are safer, healthier and more valuable. Urban planners can also benefit from the increasing availability of data, along with the improving capabilities of algorithms and mapping platforms.
This essay explores the continuing significance of the boulevard and, in doing so, summarises a human-focused science of street life. Speculating that the survival of the urban main street is essential in addressing the climate emergency, it places the boulevard at the heart of an alternative, sustainable urban future.