The Urban-to-Rural Transect allows for a much wider variety of street types than many road design guides.

“Street design manuals and land use plans are the moulds that our cities come out of,” noted Ryan Snyder during a presentation on the Model Design Manual for Living Streets at the Congress for New Urbanism’s Transportation Summit, which took place last month in Long Beach, CA. “What we need to be asking right now is: What could our manuals give us? … Streets are the majority of our public space. Why do we only let the engineers design it?”

Snyder’s question was at the heart of a discussion that stretched across the back-to-back CNU Summit and Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place conference (PWPB). Among the hundreds of active transportation advocates, planners, designers, and enthusiasts gathered in Long Beach, there was a core group of engineers who were grappling with new federal legislation, shifting funding structures, and public trends—and how these rather dramatic changes would affect the future of their field. Within this group, everyone seemed to agree that design guides and tools like the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ (AASHTO) Functional Classification System, Level of Services, and Green Book are being misused to block change rather than to build smarter, safer roads that serve their communities.

Fortunately, that’s getting more difficult in an era of fiscal constraint. As AASHTO director John Horsley explained during a panel at the CNU Summit, “We can’t build [roads] in the old way because we can’t afford [to build enough highway capacity to keep up with the] land use pattern of sprawl. My guys work for the governors. You can’t do it the same way anymore because if you look at a 10-year fiscal sustainability timeline, you just can’t get there from here.”

This is something that many people, both within and from outside of the transportation field, can no doubt understand and relate to. Economic recession and the resulting fiscal constraint are forcing people in every field—particularly those where the public sector is involved—to re-consider how they do what they do. We’re re-assessing our priorities, getting more creative about financing, and questioning our sacred cows. As many have already pointed out over the past few years, a recession, while undeniably painful, can be energizing in how it forces organizations and industries to innovate.

For Placemakers and New Urbanists (plenty of overlap there), in a way, the timing of this recession is fortuitous. Just as many Americans are waking up to the mounting problems arising from the way that we’ve built our cities over the past fifty years of auto-centric policy-making, the money for the capital-intensive model of yesteryear is disappearing. The Placemaking movement has grown significantly over the past few decades, and offers a robust model for tying citizens more directly to the decision-making process around the way their communities are shaped. Seen through this lens, public engagement isn’t a necessary evil that designers and engineers have to deal with on the way to pushing through new roads, but an opportunity for building a broad base of public support that can be leveraged to fund future solutions, many of which could avoid building costly infrastructure.

Now, as the money available shrinks and public awareness of the importance of Place grows, the time is ripe for the development of new design guides that offer more flexibility in the possible outcomes that they can produce, and for highlighting the flexibility that already exists in guides like the Green Book. As Snyder argued above, these guides play a crucial role in how our world is organized; streets are places, and they must be treated as such. This means involving many more people than just transportation officials in determining how to measure the success of a given roadway. “Traffic engineers are doing what the public has trained them to do for decades,” argued PPS’s Gary Toth during a discussion at PWPB. “They’re problem solvers, so if you want new solutions, give them new problems.”

Great streets are entirely within our reach--as long as we're asking engineers the right questions! / Photo: PPS

By necessity, transportation engineering is a hyper-professionalized field; we certainly don’t want average citizens in complete control of how roads are designed. But there is more room for people to work with engineers on the roads that do come through their neighborhoods. Current design guides oversimplify the types of communities that our roadways serve—the Functional Classification System goes so far as to divide all roads into two types: urban and rural. By contrast, the New Urbanist Urban-to-Rural Transect includes seven different types of land use patterns.

“Part of our problem,” Horsley stated, “is that we live in a siloed world. Our guys think of themselves as street, road, and highway designers, not [community builders]. The Placemaking concept that PPS advocates is an alien concept to them. Somebody needs to link what needs to be done at the community level to what our guys do when they plan the networks. Part of what we need to do is give permission to the transpo guys to look at a broader array of issues…We need different vocabulary for the same objectives.”

If the crowd at the CNU Summit and PWPB is any indication, that new vocabulary is evolving quickly. Guides like Snyder’s Model Design Manual for Living Streets, which was created to guide how roads are designed and built in the infamously auto-centric city of Los Angeles, explicitly builds people and Placemaking into the design process. “Our streets are public space, and they impact so many areas of our lives,” Snyder explained. “We wanted to look at equity, look at things for all ages, all modes, connectivity, traffic calming as part of the design; we wanted something that connects people.”

Connecting people is what roads have always done, in theory, but for too long we’ve been thinking of that connection purely across long distances. We connect from home to work, or from our neighborhood to our friends across town. Today that logic is clearly shifting. Our streets must be designed to encourage human connection within neighborhoods: out on the sidewalks, in the bike lanes, along leafy boulevards, and in public squares lined with lively local businesses. What should our design manuals give us? That’s a question that Placemakers—not just engineers—need to answer, and now.