What makes a good street?

I suppose the first question to answer is why would Economists be interested in streets? When individuals interact, existing ideas, expertise, creativity and skills possessed by people may be transformed into new improved ideas, expertise, creativity and skills. Creative ideas lead to new innovations of products and ways of doing things and businesses are born. For instance, if we take a look at the Iphone. How we listen to music has changed quite considerably in only a few decades. First, we had the Walkman, then the Discman, then the MP3 player, then the Ipod and now most of us use our Iphone. And the Iphone has enabled us to listen to music, browse the internet and take phone calls and texts etc making the inconvenient Walkman, MP3 player and so on redundant. Better ideas replace inferior ideas. Better products replace inferior products making us better off. And ideas emerge from people.

Hence, people are the carriers of knowledge. It is likely therefore that most of the ideas for innovations are generated from the interactions and experience that occur between people – we learn from one another. So people interacting is a crucial source of innovation that drives economic growth. To be fair, the movement of people from rural areas to urban areas over the past century suggests that we identify that interactions between people are beneficial. 63% of the Irish population today live in urban areas. In 1960 that was only 46%. It has been predicted that over 85% of the developed world will be urbanised by 2050. There must be something advantageous of being in close proximity to other people. Interaction leads to ideas which lead to new innovations which lead to welfare benefits for us all. Place is the most important correlate of a person’s welfare. In the next few decades, a person born in the United States will earn a hundred times more than a Zambian, and live three decades longer. Where you live matters! And this goes back to the very microeconomic level of how can we increase interaction on our streets that will lead to the new ideas of the future?

A couple of months ago I provided an opinion that the way Carrigaline is designed leads to less interaction. A focus on the motor car makes people more isolated and disconnected. We need to turn this pattern on its head and refocus on integration and making connections between people easier. Communities drive innovation. Research has shown that more meaningful interactions are likely to happen between pedestrians than they are between cyclists and drivers of cars. That is not surprising. Hence, we need to ensure pedestrians and cyclists are put to the forefront of our public spaces and we need to design good community streets. If you plan streets for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan streets for people, you get people. So what makes a good street?

People need to have a reason to be, and stay, and linger in a particular place. It needs to entertain. It needs to be sticky. Secondly, it needs to be safe. Pedestrians are safer if car traffic is slower and they are also safer if they are sharing the space with other pedestrians rather than cars. Jane Jacobs famously argued through an article called ‘eyes on the street’ that busier streets are safer streets. With more people on them, you will have more people as a witness to a possible crime and this acts as a deterrent. Streets that are interactive and social attract people to them. Streets that incorporate street markets/activities and street entertainment work best where people can stop to talk or maybe sit and watch. Streets need to be unique, different and incorporate the fabric of the people in the community. Community driven streets leads to diverse, unique streets.

Streets need to be accessible to everyone in the community, to all ages, ethnicities and income levels. There are streets in Ireland that I believe incorporate and meet a lot of these ideas.

One of my favourite streets is in Clonakilty. Clonakilty won best town in Ireland and the UK at the 2017 Urbanism Awards. They reclaimed the town from traffic and have many places for people to sit and enjoy the buzz of the street. Traffic is still allowed in a one-way direction. But the pedestrian is king here as the design instinctively informs motorists they are second when it comes to pedestrians in this space.

You will find great streets around Ireland. From Kenmare and Killarney to Kinsale, Quay Street Galway and Oliver Plunkett Street in Cork. So what kind of street in Carrigaline do people want? Is it the one we have? The best way to find out is to actually ask people? What is your favourite street in Ireland? What attracts you there? What is it you like about it? We may not be able to create the business street the community would like overnight – but we need to walk before we run. The real urban design experts, are the ordinary people who actually live and work within the community. It is from their inspiration that ideas for design should emerge.