David McKenna, Accessible and Inclusive street design expert
David McKenna, is an independent landscape architect and expert in creating accessible and inclusive streets and cities. He has designed and managed award winning projects both within the UK and abroad; has key knowledge in shared space and people centric public realm design and is the founder of Street Spirit consultancy.
With over 15 years experience as a landscape architect, working for IBI on international projects, having won many awards for your designs and started your own design practice, what do you consider to be the essential elements of sustainable street design?
We often hear talk of streets as social spaces but, even in the more adventurous street designs, it is rarely accommodated as more than a peripheral activity. I try and design streets that make social functions the dominant activity in the street. There is enormous potential to unlock masses of public space in our urban areas if we imagine our carriageways as social/play space that periodically accommodates a passing vehicle rather than the other way around. This is not appropriate in very busy, high speed traffic environments, it must be applied in the right context but could be used widely away from arterial routes in many: high streets, neighbourhood centres, suburban streets and city centre streets.
To achieve this we have to change driver behaviour so they become very aware of their responsibility, piloting a lethal weapon at high speed through crowded streets. This is done by using benches, artwork and play equipment as primary elements of highway infrastructure that communicate to drivers that they should expect to see pedestrians in the effective carriageway area and drive carefully.
Frodsham Street is designed to appear pedestrianised so drivers are very considerate and speeds are very low, generally around 10mph. Too often highway design considers 20mph as a low traffic speed but in a pedestrian priority environment it makes a tremendous difference to driver/pedestrian behaviours if average speeds are 15mph compared to 20mph or 10mph compared to 15mph.
With the current COVID-19 crisis, where do you think we would find the most traction to deliver more space for people as we enter the next phase of lockdown?
I think an approach to creating more space for people, where we focus on re-opening High Streets for business during, what may be the next prolonged phase of the Covid emergency, where some social-distancing measures are retained. I think this economic focus, getting Britain back to business, may have more traction than general safety, health or quality of life issues. This strategic approach might:
- Focus on High Street, Town and City Centres Focus on roads with multiple lanes or redundant road space to deliver wider footways+cycleways without requiring TROs Suspension of parking bays to introduce widen footways and introduce parklets#
- Include non-movement functions such as:
- Café seating, generally people might want to sit outdoors rather than the confines of cafes.
- Public Seating, we are going to need more seating if we retain social distancing and if more people are walking. Also if old people are queuing, they will need a place to sit down.
- Cycle parking, we’ll require more of this if more people are on bikes
Your work has focused on accessibility of urban spaces, having previously advised on shared space and inclusivity; what advice would you give to cities around the world that want to become more sustainable and be as inclusive and accessible as possible?
Engage with and design for, children and teenagers. They are:
- the most vulnerable users;
- the least listened too;
- the people who are going to live longest with our decisions; and
- often the most positive, imaginative, constructive users
Children, have low cognitive abilities, are physically fragile and short, they cannot see or be seen behind parked cars, bins, adults etc.. Teenagers brains make them impetuous risk takers or distracted pedestrians. Collisions tend to happen when someone makes a mistake so design forgiving environment where a driver, cyclist or pedestrian can make a mistake and not be killed or seriously injured.
Your pedestrian priority public realm redesign of Frodsham Street, Chester, UK has won many accolades, including the Health Street Award 2019, but equally importantly was named as the best street in Chester by blind users; what do you think was key to its success as a healthy and accessible street?
Genuinely listen to and empathise with blind users but this does not mean you have to do exactly what they ask. Street design is about balanced design across all user groups, focussing on the problems of one may cause more serious issues for others. Blind users have often been ignored by designers, only partially accommodated by tactile paving, this has led to justified anti-shared space campaigns by RNIB and Guide Dogs but these unfortunately have become so confrontational and regressive that it is difficult to openly discuss anything but traditional street layouts with access groups.
Firstly the design of Frodsham Street uses tactile paving correctly, so often I see new schemes where designers fundamentally misunderstanding how tactile paving is used by blind people or get basic details wrong. Next, pedestrian priority design is applied in an appropriate context i.e. where traffic speeds are already below 20mph, which we then reduce further, and where pedestrians want to use the whole width of the street.
The thing that blind users love about Frodsham Street though, is that the pedestrian only zones down either side are completely clear of street furniture so blind users can walk quickly, confident of not bumping into street signs, lighting columns, bins, etc.
On the topic of shared space and pedestrian priority, for the past few years the UK has seen uncertainty over the benefits of shared space from accessibility groups and also the Department for Transport around the safety of schemes. How do you think the design of UK’s towns and cities and accessibility concerns can be addressed to overcome such concerns?
There is basically too much focus on designing for cars and not enough of designing for people, we need to get all the people focussed stakeholders and designers on the same side of the debate to combat the dominance of vehicles across towns and cities which is the real safety issue.
To achieve this designers have to admit what does and what does not work, there are sufficient shared space schemes now across the country for us to understand this. I see three basic types of layout, similar to those identified in the CIHT “Creating Better Streets” review, and it is helpful to use these to discuss street design rather than the catch-all term shared space:
- Traditional Streets,
- Informal Streets, and
- Pedestrian Priority
Where mistakes have been made it is basically in two areas of design:
- Inappropriate application of the above street types in the wrong context e.g. Exhibition Road is designed as a Pedestrian Priority street type but would have worked better as an Informal Street.
- Designers lacking empathy with users so not genuinely accommodating their needs e.g. not designing for children or getting tactile paving details wrong
How do you think that technological and smart city solutions are currently and, in the future can, support more inclusive and accessible street design?
Generally I don’t think good street design should rely on technology. But there will certainly be better navigational support for the blind/partially sighted and people with Dementia. Electric micro-mobility will dramatically change how many people move around, proving a freedom to people who find negotiating urban areas a challenge, this will though bring with it threats to pedestrians and cyclists.
I think the Electric Bike could transform urban, sub-urban and rural mobility for the better and we should be applying ourselves to replace car journeys with those by E-bike, with cargo bikes accommodating those who need more capacity to carry items or children. I think the place for the E-bike though is not in a pedal bike lane, they need their own infrastructure, the long-term aim for E-bikes should be that they dominate the main carriageway so obviating the need for another layer of infrastructure.
What other examples from around the world, like Frodsham Street, do you think can be looked to for best practice in shared space, accessibility and people friendly street design?
The schemes that I admire are those that are bold and communicate clearly what is expected of drivers and pedestrians. Sometimes people say shared space should put uncertainty in the mind of the driver but I disagree with this, though, the design should make drivers think and engage with their surroundings rather than just follow instruction from signs or road markings.
I used Fort St in Auckland as the inspiration for Frodsham Street in Chester, in particular, how they had kept street furniture outside the pedestrian only zones. Fort Street also has some excellent, in-depth, post project analysis which demonstrates the economic value of Pedestrian Priority design as well as its safety.
I admire designs that create social spaces with a strong sense of place whilst accommodating appropriate vehicle traffic. I am very proud of two other schemes I have designed that achieve this: Castle Square in Caernarfon and Exchange Place in Kidderminster.
New Road in Brighton is a great scheme though does not properly detail tactile paving. Frideswide Square in Oxford is an excellent example of an Informal Street in a heavily trafficked urban setting but I think it would be better if Zebra or Signalised Pedestrian Crossings were available to people crossing the busiest parts of the carriageway, I think this could be accommodated without destroying the concept. I don’t mean to criticise these schemes but we have to be prepared to learn and refine design approaches if we are to innovate.
Photo credits: David McKenna