All places are different. A 20mph zone can make each one more pleasantly memorable, distinctive and enjoyable
In any study of the public realm, we start by looking at local distinctiveness of a place: what makes it special and memorable. Usually, the special characteristics stem from the history of a place. Conservation areas often have a character assessment that identifies historic buildings, groups of buildings, interesting vistas in and out of them as well as local style boundary walls.
However everywhere has something that makes it memorable or that could be enhanced or improved. Public streets are places too and often contribute to the feel of the local landscape. Road-side landscape details form the setting for the wider views. The way materials are used and the quality of craftsmanship add to a feel of completeness. Even de-cluttering a road will have immediate benefits. Finally, the obvious presence of people and activities adds a human dimension.
To see what could be improved in your neighbourhood do your own Place check starting with its look and feel.
“Consult the genius of the place” as a starting point for landscape design, urged the poet Alexander Pope in 1731. By that he meant the hills, rivers, woods, the sense of scale as well as the human emotions and responses. The sentiment is still relevant today. We accept that place can be inspiring, spacious and exhilarating, somewhere to go for recreation. But a place can also be forbidding, dingy and neglected, somewhere to avoid.
We appreciate the pleasure of experiencing the difference between a dignified city scene, a pleasant town and a salubrious suburb. One is not necessarily better than the other, it is the contrasts between them that are appealing.
What makes a place distinctive and memorable is often something specific to the location, such as a splendid view or unique building in a clean, well-maintained setting. They could also be pleasant activities that take place there. These are the things that might appear on postcards and are the positive images we retain and cherish. It might be the intricate tower of a parish church that sets it apart from others and helps give a place it own distinctive character. It is the focal point of a view.
Much of the country is covered by conservation areas. Many will already have character assessments that trace the history of the area, point out specific views and vistas that should be retained and explain that the way the place developed over time has shaped the use and style of its buildings and landscape. Many buildings have survived for more than a century and some may date back a further 500 years. The study of the historic character of a place could usefully start with the ordnance survey maps of c1900.
Historic buildings will be well documented. The buildings may be part of a group with a formal symmetrical layout or be an informal group that has its own charm. The historic Half Moon public house along the main road of Cuxham, Oxfordshire still has its thatch roof, stone walls and intimate human scale. And, after many centuries, it is still the village pub.
A group of buildings might be so complete as to seem to enclose or create its own outdoor space. The Town Hall at Wallingford, Oxfordshire is a splendid historic building in its own right. It is also in the key position facing the Market Place which is used for shopping, sitting at outdoor cafes and meeting friends. At times when local people gather together, as here on Remembrance Sunday, the surrounding buildings form what feels like a huge outdoor room.
Looking outwards and also towards this space may be outstandingly memorable vistas and views. The Circus at Bath, world renowned as a formal enclosed outdoor space, has delightful views outwards towards the Terraces and the Royal Crescent. Also, as here, there are impressive views looking within the Circus through mature trees.
Finally a conservation area character assessment might note the foreground that forms the setting for historic buildings. At the road-side there might be green verges with boundary hedges, railings, fences or, as here, an interesting boundary wall built with local flints.
Everywhere has something
Even if a locality is not in a conservation area, it will have something to commend it that local people love and cherish. It may be a local monument or public building that people associate with happy memories or a local green space where people can relax. Even along an otherwise dreary, road people walking along the pavement might appreciate these large stone spheres. They are decorated with a leaf design, a playful part of an urban landscape.
Streets are places too
Though not often appreciated, streets, roads and lanes are not only for passing traffic, the are places too. They are where people go about the daily lives; where they may linger and look at art or market stalls; where there will be paths leading to shops, school or work and where they may, by chance, meet friends and neighbours.
Road-side landscape details
Streets and roads also form the foreground for nearly all the buildings in the land. In this sense they are the setting to complement a building, not the star to compete with it for prominence. Local landscape details work well when they are robust and uncluttered. The character of the historic house with its ornate side alley to the rear workshop is complemented by the retention of the stone setts and kerb-stones in the road, well as the smooth stone cart-tracks in the side alley.
Though it is a painstaking task, de-cluttering a road, whether in a city, town, suburb, village or open country allows its distinctive quality to be more easily appreciated.Many traffic signs are redundant and so can be safely removed. Those that are essential can often be simplified and neatly positioned.
People and activities
The activities that people do along or adjacent to a road adds to the distinctive character of a place. Street markets and art fairs are obvious, but so are the signs that tell people about future events. Perhaps the most precious is the ability to sit in a pleasant place for a while or the chance to meet friends.
Some places, even a busy road junction, have been rebuilt to create a pleasant, enjoyable space for people as well as for the efficient movement of traffic. Seats for example are more than a just place to sit and rest. With innovative sculpture they can be an entertainment.
Do your own Place check
Before starting a place-making project its helpful to carry out an audit or check list of what you think is good, bad or could be improved.
Positive aspects to note would be the buildings or activities that are pleasantly memorable. Negatives are usually things that can be seen almost anywhere such as broken paving slabs and street clutter. We need to accentuate the positives and have a clear idea of what should be done.
With the place check complete, its time to combine it with the traffic & road safety check, as well as the health and wellbeing check, to bring it all together to see what the total rewards are for your own 20mph zone and how, with sensitively designed traffic calming and political leadership, to put them in place.