With Good Design we'll be Dancing in the Streets
Transport planner, Phil Jones, has his attention fixed firmly on the quality of the spaces between the housing we develop.
"What is the difference between a street and a road?' Phil asked. 'Would you dance in the road, or dance in the street?"
Roads, he proposed, connected places - in the past you 'rode' on horseback from one town to another.
Streets, on the other hand, were the connecting arteries of the place itself binding communities together.
Previous government policy had been pulled together through the National Guidance on Roads which had led to a 'highly standardised car-led approach'.
These Highways standards had focussed on issues such as carriageway widths, design speeds, junction geometry and checking and audit procedures.
Conventional highways thinking included a 'road hierarchy' from a primary route into a district leading into an access road and home zone.
It didn't include different approaches to high streets, or rural and residential streets, for example, where alongside the primary motives of moving people around, our residents might want to socialise, shop, enjoy refreshments - food and drink, and socialise.
"The National Guidance on Roads was broadly speaking a geometric proposition with a 'pass' and 'fail' culture. Five types of road were recognised in a four-part kit. It was when highways engineering came into urban areas," Phil added. "However, most highways are in built-up or residential areas and can be considered as streets."
In 2003 government had recognised, through the Communities Plan, that there was an economic value in a place that felt good.
This was followed by the DfT's 'Manual for Streets', produced jointly with Phil Jones and published in 2007.
It clarified the role played by our streets in delivering a better quality of life - by encouraging alternative means of transport such as walking and cycling and by building and strengthening the communities they serve.
"It recognised that streets weren't just there to get people from A to B. That in fact they have many other functions," said Phil. "Inclusive places that encourage the growth of communities have the following attributes - they're well connected; they have distinctive identities, they are both cost effective and safe.
"How do we create these distinctive identities so that our urban developments do not look the same wherever they're built?
"It's a challenge drawing on the vernacular in our streets, for example through schemes such as Victoria Gardens in Camelford, the work of London's Peabody Housing Trust, for example in Southwark, or developments such as Broadclose in Bude, or Lime Tree Square in Street, Somerset or the housing developed in New Hall in Harlow, Essex where there are well connected sets of street types.
"Castle Vale in Birmingham was developed as a 1960s overspill estate. Built on an airfield and representing Birmingham's largest post war housing estate, a motorcycle had been clocked at 90mph going through the heart of the estate. The Castle Vale Housing Action Trust re-designed the estate in what has been recognised as one of the most successful regeneration schemes in the country, working in collaboration with the local authority, residents and the private sector.
"Sustrans has promoted low cost interventions such as using Public Art and encouraging greater community interaction.
"People do need prompts in the landscape where they can meet and use space together - BBQs, table tennis tables, gardening clubs and so forth are all useful examples.
As we can see there are many good practices, but there remains so much more that can be done to improve our communities and quality of life."
Beverley Nielsen is Director Employer Engagement, Birmingham City University