The social and civic life of high streets

In order to adapt High Streets, we need to rediscover their role at heart of communities as social spaces. Seven years on from her review of high streets Mary Portas says high street retail will survive the growth in online shopping if it makes its business social and focuses on people’s experience. The public realm is an important interface in this transition. Well managed and organised public realm can improve people’s experience by making routes into and through Town Centres legible, easy and enjoyable to use. A review of public space can also identify historically important spaces that have been subdued over time and new axes of movement based on leisure, service and civic activities. By taming the vehicle dominance of key spaces new opportunities can be created.

Our proposal for Brentwood Town Centre with Cottrell and Vermeulen Architects developed the client’s themes of; identity and character, resilience and sustainability and access and flow. We established how a civic axis might become the organising route for a series of public rooms or renewed public spaces. We also proposed evaluating movement related to town centre schools – to consider how to support healthy patterns of travel.

Incredible Edible Todmorden have developed a successful visitor experience based on a route around a network of community growing projects so that visitors can interact with the contemporary social ecology of the town. Stamford and Keswick both revived their market function with elegant and robust public realm improvements that set off the activity of the market and historic buildings.

Understanding how the history of a place can be an important foundation for public realm improvement. Landscape Projects Bath Pattern Book (2012) is based on careful archive research of the city’s history and careful observation of its character in use by Gehl Architects. The pattern book identifies different historic street typologies in section, describing their role in relation to building frontages, their differing scale from street to mews, their surface materials and edges, their below ground and surface service function and identifying room for adaptation – e.g. where tree planting could be introduced. The study also reviews where the city’s rich history can be evidenced and better interpreted, it also reviews the space for performance, the quality of existing lighting and public art legacy. The pattern book contains concept designs for seven streets and spaces. These show how; a common palette of materials would be applied to suit the specifics of each site, how businesses could occupy areas of street and where public art could be integrated and how street furniture, landscape and lighting would be located. The guide presents the designs as plans, three dimensional overviews and in day and night time illustrations. Precedents are also used to describe the design teams’ intentions.

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ten days in Las Vegas

A research project that led to new ways of thinking about design.


Nolli’s Map of Rome – Learning from Las Vegas 1972.

Learning from Las Vegas (Venturi, R., Scott Brown, D., Izenour, S. 1972) is an example of a research project that led to new ways of thinking about design. In 1968 the researchers and a group of students spent ten days in Las Vegas with free board and lodging at the Stardust Hotel. Having spent three weeks in the library they carried out observational research recording the characteristics of the town. The surveys were designed to explore the relationship between; movement, iconography and public space in the car orientated landscape of the Las Vegas strip. Each element was recorded as layer of a map recording the disposition of: undeveloped land, asphalt, autos, buildings, ceremonial space and finally ‘Nolli’s Las Vegas’ which brought the layers ‘asphalt’ and ‘ceremonial spaces’ together to show how the commercial strip was structured as a series of public places.

Since then designers routinely use layers to observe and analyse the key features of a site, adapting and extending this set of layers to describe a design proposal. Some layers record a general background understanding of the site but some like the layers in Learning from Las Vegas are much more specific  about the particular drive of the project or the specific character of a place.

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