Yes, but how?

Daylighting Melbourne: how we can transform our cities, street by street

Let us Not-Plan. Instead, let’s break urban transformation into a series of small, progressive steps, enabling people, technology, place, and environment to be aligned a little more carefully, and unlocking better streets as we go

Dan Hill
Dan Hill
Nov 10 · 29 min read

Cars have laid waste to our cities. The sister article to this piece lays out how, but also what some cities are beginning to do about it. And within that article is a note about a particular design strategy for unpicking the car-dominated street, bit by bit. This piece expands upon that, working as a kind of extended footnote. Note: as a playbook entry, it’s detailed; so perhaps read it in pieces.

The street is the basic unit of city. It is where the city comes together. It is not the freeway (despite some transport planners’ best efforts) nor is it the residential cul-de-sac or country lane. It is where we live, work and play, where the slightly higher density of interactions forces contradiction and complexity, yet in a way which is entirely everyday. It is, to paraphrase Sennett, where we learn to live well with people who are not like us; in other words, the whole point of cities.

For that to happen, we need to rebalance the street as a series of slow and fast layers of change: to enable adaptation and flexibility to the fast moving layers of mobility technologies, in ways that the heavy, distinctly 20th century infrastructure for the car and truck does not, whilst reinforcing the slower, more valuable characteristics of streets, like places for open, social and civic interaction, whether markets, playgrounds, discussion, gardens, or culture and cultures. But put simply, our approach to the former, designing for 20thC mobility, has tended to destroy the latter.

Despite cities making statements to the contrary, the transport planner (really a traffic engineer in most cases) has inadvertently been allowed to define what the street is about — as if we invented streets in order to generate traffic. The street is only incidentally about traffic yet that is largely how it is managed, and so that is what it becomes.

Put traffic engineers in charge of the street and you get traffic. If we put gardeners in charge of the street, we’d get gardens.

From a design and policy point-of-view, we generally are left with the challenge of a toolkit for streets still tuned to 20th century. We have to reverse that now.

Melbourne as a prototype

A few questions spring to mind:

  • How do we describe new ‘north stars’ to steer with, framed around challenges like climate, health, and social justice? And how can these deliver richer, more ‘everyday complex’, diverse and delightful streets?
  • How do policymakers and planners uncover new methods for these new outcomes?
  • How do we elegantly, carefully yet ambitiously take advantage of the new mobility technologies?
  • How do we really unlock the power of the street by unhooking it from the idea of the car as progress?
  • How do we take people with us through this transformation, as we reverse the polarity of all that 20th century advertising and engineering?

Whilst helping devise the initial vision and strategy for Melbourne’s Innovation District with my former team Arup Digital Studio, we wanted to explore how we might address these questions, showing how existing streets could be ‘flipped’ over time, describing a different practice to traditional planning, and using a richer array of tools. Working closely with the brilliant Chris Green in my team, we created ourselves a little brief within the broader project, and called on the expertise of Arup’s Global Transport Leader Isabel Dedring. (Chris and I had worked together on numerous projects ‘future street’ projects at Arup, from Sidewalk Labs to Gemeente Amsterdam, and Isabel had actually run much of London’s transport, whilst deputy mayor there.)

With Isabel’s guidance, Chris and I sketched out an approach to transforming a typical inner-Melbourne street by progressively switching out its car-based mobility over time. We wanted to describe how a series of small apparently tactical moves could in fact be strategic, combining to great effect over time, building footholds as we go. Given the ongoing failure of planning to understand tech, it would be important to suggest how to take advantage of today’s technology, and tomorrow’s as it becomes useful. In particular, we wanted to describe a participative approach to interventions, enabling people to engage step-by-step. And crucially, to describe how focusing on outcomes — ends rather than means — and using a ‘North Star’ for societal outcomes, as with mission-oriented innovation, might enable a richer set of values in play.

Generalising wildly, admittedly, such an approach would the opposite of urban planning, a kind of Un-Planning (though not the same as Non-Plan at all, given it still is a directed, design-led practice). It would instead deploy an ‘adaptive design’ philosophy and practice: iterative, agile, engaged, working in slow and fast layers simultaneously, common to interaction design, service design, and other contemporary design practices honed in the tech sector. As usual in my work, it would adapt a ‘small pieces, loosely joined’ design philosophy derived from designing on the internet, and thus human-centred, yet try to place this in the context of cities and urbanism, and thus beyond individually-oriented user-centred design, and into the broader circuits of urban systems and the biosphere.

Incidentally, Melbourne could work as a prototype here as it is in many ways a perfect collision of European, American and Asian urban influences. It is its own place—and most of all, Wurundjeri—but at the same time has weathered waves of post-colonial development. Its history includes modified European models (not just British, but also Italian, Greek, and other southern and eastern European cultures), North American urban development perhaps most of all, as usual with Australia, and more recently, significant Asian influence. As such, it is an endlessly interesting and complex place, yet could stand in, almost like a movie set, for many other urban types elsewhere.

Frame by frame

The area in question for us, just outside the central business district of Melbourne, is still in fully 20th century mode—and so it’s typical of many cities. How could it be iteratively transformed to become more valuable, in every sense, via a design process which is equitable, participative and replicable?

We had an overall vision for the district in mind, avoiding the trap of using property development as the engine for change, and instead threading together the existing city via a diverse series of different interventions, creating ribbons of new activity running on the existing streets. (More on this project later, perhaps.) Still, this diagram illustrates how an individual street transformation could be part of a wider ‘play’, progressively weaving a tapestry-like pattern across these grids of city. These activities are all ‘lighter’ layers, generally requiring little in the way of large capital investment, and each capable of being tested and iterated in place.

For a sketch, we chose a section of street based on Cardigan Street, only moments from the Central Business District (CBD) in a city of four million people, but somehow largely empty, used essentially for car parking. It’s theoretically a street, and presumably designated as such officially, but in reality it’s a car park, pretending to be a street.

There are dozens of streets like this in a city like Melbourne. We it precisely because it is nothing special; yet to use it like this seems an extraordinary waste, even harmful. The image above has essentially no-one in it (there is someone there, if you want to Where’s Wally? a little). Its value is reduced to the sum total of parking fees generated by these hot lumps of metal, sitting ticking in the sun.

The diagram above implies these interventions almost dropping from the sky, which we knew would be the wrong inference in reality. Instead, we have to show how they, and others, actually emerge from the ground up, step by step. And we have to show how the value and impact builds as we go, rather than falling into the usual ‘build it and they will come’ ‘instant transformation’ rhetoric falsely spouted in typical urban development projects.

Starting point; Melbourne today

So this is the starting point. We’ll show what else it could be. But what follows—the entire sequence—is still no more than a sketch. The sketch is a process that implies direction, reveals tactics and strategies, brings form to ideas, and enables discussion, thus helping forward movement. It can be increasingly realistic, upping resolution until it begins to indicate possibility with some real detail; and yet it is still just a sketch. It is not a blueprint, or a specification, and so it is still in the realm of ideas. As Robin Evans said, referring to architectural drawing primarily, but it surely applies to similar design practices:

“Drawing … occupies the most uncertain, negotiable position of all, along the main thoroughfare between ideas and things.”

The early stages of the sketch, when often hand-drawn, can be more open, generative. The latter stages are more realistic, and can be moved quickly to blueprint, or plan, or proposition. We positioned this particular piece along that axis, but closer to the end, wanting to ensure that people understood possibility. The team often did this kind of concept design, to make possibilities tangible at the stage of the initial question or overall vision and strategy, and in order for more detailed stages of design to follow more effectively.

As usual, Chris and I did numerous sketches on paper, before Chris developed hi-res renders, working with Arup’s in-house Visualisation team. Chris’s sketches are better, so I’ll use those to illustrate:

What Chris’s sketch indicates, with its storyboard-like sequence, is that we wanted to show a process rather than an outcome. Planning usually forces you to draw a picture of the end-state: to essentially deliver an image of the street in 2030, and to then specify all the elements, the sequences, the materials, the costs, and so on. We don’t know those things in advance. Even as so-called experts in this, we don’t know. Better, we don’t want to know. We want to take advantage of technologies and cultural movements as they occur, and test them in real-time before committing to securing them in place. Else, we fall into the trap hinted at by Cedric’s provocation, ‘Technology is the answer. But what was the question?’. So this was about describing a process, or devising a culture to build around the project.

Yet taking the storyboard approach, we could start sketching a trajectory that was more tangible than ‘Let’s design a process’. At the end of the day, designers have to recognise that few others are interested in the design process; people, whether clients or citizens, tend to want outcomes, not designers. Yet we must find a way of smuggling a new design process into a task nonetheless, if it can deliver richer kinds of outcomes.

Step 0: The Before-and-After Machine

So, the first step of the process has to be tangible, but in this case must also be about the process. Two years after this project, Brian Eno and I were discussing heuristics for a subsequent street project to this in Sweden, taking a similar approach but at a national scale. He said, typically brilliantly:

“Think like a gardener, not an architect: design beginnings, not endings.”

This whole process is in that spirit, as will become clear. This is about ongoing beginnings, and seeing that there is no real ending when we are talking about the street; or rather, if you have achieved an ending, it indicates a problem, the end of change – in fact, the Melbourne street as it is above, frozen into merely a parking lot.

But given that, this particular beginning seems a little odd—a public sensor box and wifi unit. A sensor box usually implies the worst kind of smart city project (which I’ve been a vocal critic of for decades), and very little to do with the direction of the project at all. Yet we knew we need to change a culture that many cities have got into—largely due to outsourcing and procurement, I believe—of not gathering coherent data before a project, or after. As they are often not ‘running the street’, other than certain mandatory aspects, they don’t tend to gather real-time data about it (this would be different under a City Design and Delivery Team organisation, by the way.) So, generally, city after city delivers street projects—re-greening; changing traffic flows; shifting kerbs—without understanding the impact of the intervention.

On another project for City of Melbourne, we devised something we called the Before-and-After Machine, a mobile sensor unit which could be installed into the sites of their many great urban design projects, to coherently capture some elements of the impact of the work. Their Greening Laneways programme is exemplary, for instance. Yet in the early days of that initiative, little data really existed about how the programme precisely reduced heat island effects, or stormwater mitigation demands, or the increase in footfall, never mind more qualitative factors. (From our work helping devise the City of Melbourne Smart City Approach, we know there was lots of great data-oriented work elsewhere—on their wonderful Urban Forest, for example—yet it was not across the board, or done as a matter of course, or as real-time feeds. And Melbourne is further ahead on this than most cities are.)

Step 0: The Before-and-After Machine

So the key point here is gather some data on the actual performance of the street, to both provide a baseline as well as deliver insights with which to shape interventions. The photo above, like the one-off count still so typical of urban data-gathering, does not gather the ebbs and flows of the real urban environment. During the night, this street may be more full of fruit bats than cars. During the day, these cars may all be overflow from the nearby universities—in which case, we can run a campaign to reduce that incredibly effectively, given the institutional stakeholders and their stated direction. We need to know that data. We also know wifi can tend to attract people to a place, even in an age of pervasive cellphone data coverage. This kit can also supply basic connectivity for subsequent interventions.

Crucially, these sensors boxes and public wifi routers should be visible, explicable and open. The wifi router is indicated as a red sleeve on the lamppost in order to be visible (in reality, it would be even more clearly marked.) The sensor box to the left is prominent, clear, and looks like well-designed and maintained civic infrastructure. It should be marked City of Melbourne (or equivalent) and with a clear statement about the data gathered, what it is being used for, who owns it (in this case, a strong case for the municipality, as the democratically-responsive public body in town), and who to get in touch with to find out more. (For all their other issues, Sidewalk Labs have done some nice work on creating a set of public icons and notes for this. Equally, we did many sister projects on urban street infrastructure design, and had numerous variations on this to show project partners.)

It should feel like quality street furniture, subtly indicating municipal care for the street and its environment. In many ways, street furniture—as something we all touch and use, as opposed to most buildings, say—should have the highest design standards of all our urban interventions, as a form of public luxury. Yet it is rarely thought about in that way. At this point, I would usually show collaborators the groundbreaking work of David Mellor in the UK, or even a contemporary company like Vestre. Fortunately, the City of Melbourne’s in-house design team, under Ian Dryden, has a wonderful track record here.

David Mellor UK street furniture, 1950s

All in all, this baseline data, supported by early stages qualitative engagement in the form of ethnography and user research, would provide a sense of what the street currently does, the value created (or not), the environmental performance, and both insights and issues to resolve next. Learning about the street in this way is Base Camp One for the project. The real learning comes next, however.

Step 1: Paint some new mobility

This is a very wide street. Again, Melbourne is full of such streets. As are most inner cities. This gives us immense possibility. Looking at some nearby streets, we even imagined out an entire new line of building down the middle (a kind of slender stripe of row-houses you’d probably need an architect from Tokyo or Seoul to deliver), breaking one street into two. I took hundreds of photos of the area whilst working on these projects, over many months. Below, a few of the other candidate streets in the area, and the original shot of the street we finally selected. All of these are incredibly wide, covered in parking over anything else.

Looking at any of these, as well as the street we finally chose for the candidate, we can start shuffling mobility right away, without apparently breaking much of the existing flow, or revealing our hand too early. Looking at the cars on the right and left of this street below, we could change the left side to angled parking — say, parking at 30 or 45 degrees, rather than parallel to the kerb — and so pack in more cars there. We can then shuffle the car parking from right to left, freeing up the space on the right for a bike lane.

Step 1: Paint some new mobility

Making a bike lane, and changing the parking spaces on the left, requires a bit of paint. It is an incredible cheap intervention. In reality, the road condition for cyclists would need addressing (checking whether storm drains need replacing to avoid trapping bike wheels, and so on), but for what is essentially a few dollars, we are already beginning to shift the mobility, and the way the street is used, the way it feels.

Note we deliberately decided to draw a cyclist without helmets. Cycling without a helmet is illegal in Australia, and has been a huge debate locally, not least given the alleged role of helmets in preventing Melbourne’s bike sharing scheme from flourishing (it’s more likely to do with lack of investment, such as delivering bike lanes—but helmets will be a factor.)

In drawing that cyclist, we are not getting into the debate of whether helmets are necessary or not (I know which ‘side’ I am on there, personally, but a) I can see the value in the other side’s argument, and b) I don’t want to get side-tracked by the helmet debate, when at the end of the day all I want to see are more bikes!)

But by drawing a cyclist without a helmet we are prompting a debate that needs to be had, no matter which conclusion our stakeholders would ultimately draw. We wanted to suggest the question, “How safe do we have to make the street such that cyclists don’t have to wear helmets?” And we wanted to show a kind of cyclist not dominated by cycling gear, sportswear, etc, which we know has an unfortunate impact on the idea that bikes are just the best way to get around cities, not a sport (the MAMIL tends to skew the image of cycling away from that.) We further suggested a conversation about bike-sharing versus owning bikes, as well as the gendered delivery of existing bike schemes, and so on.

You can use sketches to prompt and then hold this conversation, in a way that you cannot with a blueprint or a true plan.

Step 2: Prototype tech so you can pivot

Having introduced a near-perfect 19th century technology to this 21st street, a key question is how we handle the slew of 21st century technologies currently deployed various across our streets, such as ride-sharing, shared micromobility like bikes and e-scooters, autonomous mobility, e-bikes and cargo-bikes, and so on. Our approach here implies an active engagement with these technologies (again, City Design and Delivery Teams), but also a way of handling new tech. In short, prototyping.

For instance, we don’t know, a priori, how well autonomous mobility will work in these environments, what kind of tasks they’ll be used for, how citizens will take to them, what unforeseen outcomes might arise. But we need to test them, as the promise of using, say, shared autonomous shuttles to remove up to 80% of the private cars from city streets is too great to ignore. The answer for somewhere like Melbourne may be well short of that—although it depends largely on what we, as a city, want to have happen; this is not a law of physics we cannot change, but an outcome we can shoot for.

Still, these things are trundling around right now in Helsinki, Göteborg, Stockholm, even Darwin’s waterfront. They are already here, just not evenly distributed. So we might as well drop them into the sketch, to indicate that they need to be tested.

The key word there is ‘tested’. We are not committing to a full public roll-out, at scale, here—but instead proposing a single autonomous shuttle to be deployed here, as a trial. Requiring little capital investment, it could even be even owned and run by the community, or a university, as much as City of Melbourne or Transport Victoria. Even at this scale, we might find uses for them, particularly in a small district, or campus, environment. (Note: when the project was being conducted, in mid-2017, a handful of these trials were in place in the world. Subsequently, one of the project partners, University of Melbourne, has started testing the shuttles on their campus, as suggested.)

But we also need to be able to stop the trial, after testing, if the tech doesn’t work out. We need to be able to pivot, in the ‘lean startup’ language of tech. Obviously, hardware is not the same as software—hardware is hard—and urban infrastructure is far more complex than software. Yet the dynamics of new urban infrastructure suggest we can borrow some of the practice from tech, as long the team, and thinking, behind the initiatives is more holistic than most tech companies could ever imagine.

As with most contemporary infrastructures and technologies, these are new applications (the shuttle) running old hardware (the street); the non-grid pattern I’ve described before. This is quite unlike the heavy, concrete-laden technologies of the 20th century, and thus we can use a far more lightweight, engaged and iterative design process than traditional planning and policy. This is a fundamental difference in process, but also organisation and policy. As it requires little in the way of capital, like almost every move in this sequence, we can unhook it from the requirement to offset costs with expensive property-led development. We don’t have to use the ‘fire and forget’ processes involved in traditional planning-led projects, with their glacial pace, expertise-driven opacity, and disruptive construction processes. And we can quickly and cheaply back out of a dead-end if we find ourselves driving into one.

This is about testing new tech on its own terms, whilst understanding the wider impact on places, environments and communities, and generating maximum meaning from minimum means, to borrow Abram Games’s choice phrase.

Step 2: Prototype tech so you can pivot

In the frame above, the sensor box now has some new modules stacked on top, indicating that it has become a ride-share pick-up point too, with a light and a screen indicating the imminent arrival. We called this element a ‘totem’, to suggest these variable stacked modular components, and its presence in the street. This kind of totem would enable a better balance of fixed and floating mobility services in the city. And so we have also suggested this space to the middle-left of the image, at the top of the island of parking, is now a kind of mixed-mobility hub, with bike-sharing, and a touch of amenity, like the bench. (Were we doing the project now, the rack for bikes would also have slots for e-scooters too, of course. Watch this space.)

Again, we designed numerous variations on this totem around this time, from clients like City of London to Google Campus, University of Melbourne to Amsterdam ArenaPoort. In suggesting that this particular instance is owned and run by the municipality—or even the public consortium of MID—and pinned clearly around the public transport functionality (and with minimal screen components, in order to reduce distraction), they are quite different in essence to the advertising- and surveillance-led Link NYC boxes that have emerged elsewhere. (These totems or kiosks could be a project write-up in themselves; perhaps one day.)

Step 3: Green fingers slowly encircle the cars

Note that there is still a huge amount of car parking in the image, and that cars can still move freely, in both directions in left and right lanes. We are suggesting small steps on purpose. This design process is active and engaged, but we want to avoid a street fight.

This iterative approach is more realistic. Removing car parking, particularly in Australia, is about as popular as Ben Stokes in a Carlton bar (excuse the cricketing reference); at least with the car driving community, that is.

Here, I was hugely influenced by Jan Gehl’s approach to transforming Copenhagen. Copenhagen was once covered in cars too, but I recall Gehl saying, effectively, “We just took away about 1% of parking every year. No-one really noticed.” You do that for six decades, though, and you’ve transformed the place. In fact, the City of Melbourne’s Rob Adams, who has been equally instrumental within his city, has been pursuing a similar tactic for years. Yet, as with most things Australian, the scale of the problem is simply bigger here.

So this next step still retains the car-based access; it is just begins to shift the priority to forms of life.

Step 3: Green fingers slowly encircle the cars

Given the fine square to the right (although many of the squares in this bit of Melbourne are actually a little moribund, due to being caught in a noose of parking) we can start borrowing the foliage and bringing it closer to the street. Planter boxes will do just fine, in terms of beginning this re-greening, even re-naturing; again, it’s a cheap solution that can be moved until it works.

These approaches are of course inspired by the global parklet movement, which uses a tactical urbanism tool to provoke discussions of alternative uses of street space, via a highly distributed model. We did a couple of Parking Day interventions at the Arup Sydney office in 2008/09, and the ideas have started with me. What we are trying to do here, though is alloy the tactical dynamic to a multi-perspective and multi-temporal strategy, in order to avoid the issues with pop-up urbanism – I dig more into that aspect in this Architectural Design article on Planning Fast and Slow.

More permanently, we are suggesting planting trees throughout the middle reservation, amidst the parking, as well as on the pavement to the right. This will in time create a canopy, fusing the street together above whilst creating a far richer ground below. It may require a different surface for the bike lane, ultimately, given root systems, but otherwise this can only be beneficial. And of course Melbourne has had an exemplary Urban Forest strategy, since 2012, but most of the city is still hardscape, meaning increasing issues with urban heat island effect (which gets serious in Melbourne summer, and will only get much, much worse) as well as stormwater run-off (and ditto, in terms of that getting worse too.)

The value of this form of green infrastructure is almost beyond calculation and cities worldwide are seeing the value in re-greening, such as Paris replanting whatever it can to reduce heat, or Amsterdam re-surfacing to capture stormwater.

Whilst these small interventions are slowly stacking up, there are numerous opportunities to engage citizens in public discussions about the value of these changes. The deliberate, iterative movement purposely allows these debates to take place, and the value of each intervention can be made clear and conveyed imaginatively (e.g. Brickstarter-style platforms, or the more physical Chilean examples we drew from for that, or a range of formats, from the hand-drawn maps we produced for Sheffield to the augmented reality tools we made with Ericsson—both referenced here).

Again, removing parking is one of the least popular moves one can make, once car owners have got used to these spaces. So every small step here is an opportunity to flush out these responses, but proportionally. By this point, although car and logistics movement is still possible either side, their space is being curtailed, which will have the effect of slowing traffic down, and probably dissuading some from entering in the first place. This is exactly what we have in mind, yet that still needs careful handling.

This form of design means we cannot be specific, in advance, about how long this process takes. With public engagement, it takes as long as it takes. Again, that is not an acceptable proposition with traditional planning in mind; but it is the latter that has to change, rather than railroading through such crucial engagement. Experience tells us that careful, creative participation is actually quicker than the cumbersome ‘propose-consult-appeal’ process of planning by the book, anyway. Take people with you, and it’s a whole lot easier. This design process allows for numerous engagements, every step of the way. The design will be enriched by these interactions, in fact. So it may well be quicker, better process; but one cannot predict in advance how quick. This remains an issue.

Step 4: Light the bluestone touchpaper

After all this careful iteration, and by now beginning to genuinely reduce car traffic flows, we may be ready for a bigger move. At this point, we propose fully claiming back the road-space to the right, and resurfacing it for more diverse use. Note, car drivers can still access the left-hand lane in the background, albeit more slowly and no doubt in one-way, single-file. But the right hand side is now given over to various forms of mobility, from bikes to shuttles, which can respectfully weave through this ‘shared space’-like condition, and more importantly, is now primed for many more diverse uses.

Step 4: Light the bluestone touchpaper

Now the street is beginning to happily blur with the square to the right, the latter’s green fingers reaching out into the street, defining a series of useful spaces as if open palms of the hand; places to sit in the shade, or to tuck small stalls into. There are bike-racks embedded in the parking in the central reservation. And there is still car parking here! We are not total fascists! The re-surfacing is done with probably too sandstone-y a material for Melbourne; in retrospect, we should’ve gone a little closer to classic Melbourne bluestone. Apologies, Melburnians.

Step 5: Fill with life

And so finally, given all those careful chess moves, we have a platform for life. This street, by now, can be filled with all kinds of activity. This does not just happen by itself, despite the rhetoric. And so the last image produced in this sequence indicates the kind of actions that an active curator of the street can enable, or even ensure.

Nurturing this activity would have started right at the beginning, building slowly in line with the changing street. We felt comfortable suggesting this as this little sequence was part of the MID strategy, where we were also foregrounding the activities that this kind of district could, and perhaps should, enable. Thus we knew there could be active curation of such a street. No matter how light-touch, empathetic and subtle that curation would need to be, it is a necessary step.

That activity, from kids playing football to bugs in the soil, is essentially the whole point of the street.

Step 5: Fill with life

So here we have the street full of life. You can still drive down the left-hand lane. There is still parking in the middle. But the rest of the street is transformed. There are multiple forms of activity, from cafés to football, and multiple forms of mobility. And people.

This, of course, is a clichéd image, typical of many urban development projects; the kind of thing plastered on a building site’s hoarding. What saves it from that, we think, is that is simply one step in a much larger sequence, which has placed great emphasis on participation and engagement, and careful navigation through a series of options, and so it is not really an ending at all—it is not destined for hoardings, but as a sketch of a strategy. In fact, when I talk about this, I point out the clichés that the images represent, but actually spend most time talking about the outcomes that the images represent.

Remember the first image? The key tangible outcome there? Parking fees. And then lots of negative outcomes.

But this other street, the alternative we have sketched out, is full of people. These people are healthier, as they are moving more, and tending to use a diverse array of active transport to do so. They are healthier as the air is cleaner, thanks to the reduced motorised vehicles, which also reduces carbon emissions, and the increased greenery. That greenery also acts as a carbon sink and increases biodiversity, whilst also reducing the ambient street temperature in summer and soaking up excessive rainfall. So the street itself is healthier. There is more social interaction, as opposed to the isolating bubble of single-occupancy cars, which improves mental health and wellbeing. This strengthened social fabric has multiple other positive effects, of course, perhaps even more profoundly if less immediately tangible, in terms of civic and democratic outcomes. The trees also tend to add value to properties in the street, perhaps intrinsically linked to their aesthetic and sensory qualities. Should you wish that property value outcome for your city, this street will increase property value—particularly compared to the starting point. (Note, with the MID project, we wanted to place brakes on the likely gentrification caused by increased property value, so this was not an outcome we were shooting for.) Business value increases on and around this street, as a result of the more diverse and dynamic environment—again, compared to the first image—and increased footfall, just as community and social organisations would also benefit.

All these health, sustainability and resilience outcomes actually save money, usually to the public purse—in terms of healthcare, climate adaptation, social care, and so on. So the value of this street is not just increased revenue, but vast savings. The value to the Netherlands of their cycling culture is around €19 billion per year, just in terms of basic public health savings. That’s around 3% of their GDP. Conversely, most regional health budgets, and Melbourne/Victoria is no exception, is immediately allocated to largely preventable chronic health issues. It’s absurd that we do not join these issues up coherently.

This outcome requires innovation in ‘total budgeting’, in order to make the investment case across budget lines, seeing that many of the answers to healthcare are not actually in the health department’s budget lines, but in these urban design and transport budgets. In other words, the Ministry of Health cannot truly solve for health, as health problems are created in all the other ministries. So the answer to healthcare is in the department of transport, the department of planning, the department of education, and so on. Bike infrastructure is a healthcare budget, not a transport budget, in other words. Health is a component of multiple departments policies, as is sustainability, social outcomes, economic outcomes, and so on. With this form of integrated intervention, we get multiple outcomes simultaneously.

These sketches reveal that today’s silos make little sense when we are designing for and producing integrated outcomes. This is problematic for contemporary governance, no matter how common sensical. This form of finance and governance innovation, driven through the project, would be another positive outcome of something like MID (or an equivalent innovation project elsewhere—it is another case for City Design and Delivery teams.)

The list above comprises merely some of the primary positive outcomes. You may see more. Equally, it is hard to list that many negative outcomes, save that reduction in parking fees going to municipal coffers. Yet we can now see that those parking fees are basically derived from the climate crisis, and so ultimately, are not exactly that valuable after all.

An adaptive strategy

These outcomes are the focus of the entire sequence, even though they are best described in the final scene. Yet they are possible to describe right at the beginning, and provide the basis for the participation elements throughout the sequence. By focusing engagement on discussions of ‘how clean do we want the air in this street?’ or ‘could we have a street where kids can play football?’, we sidestep questions of car parking by lifting the conversation to obviously higher value outcomes.

Those outcomes, which we would sometimes express as a clear set of linked statements, acting as a steering mechanism or compass at the pivot points in the diagram above. (‘Does this move improve the air, and by how much?’, ‘If we do this, will it increase footfall, and amongst whom?’)

The line of progress, running diagonally from bottom left to top right, is increasing these multiple forms of value as it progresses. Value increases, not in a straight line, but nonetheless.

As my Arup colleague Malcolm Smith pointed out when he saw the diagram, the increased value of this street by steps 4 and 5, again compared to the starting point, Also means you have the capital cost of the resurfacing covered, more or less at the point that you need it. The start of the process, steps 0, 1 and 3, is full of cheap interventions — painted bike lanes, a few planter boxes. The resurfacing in bluestone, the one big move in terms of sunk capital cost, and a ‘slow layer’ that is expensive and awkward to reverse, need only happen once the value of the street starts increasing, and thus generates the financing to pay for it, and we have generated enough momentum to warrant in the first place.

So the value increases, as the time progresses along the x-axis. We can be loose about the overall timing, but each step is tangible, and positive. The slight shifts in direction indicate that this will not be a predictable linear process, but a way of wiggling towards the future, pivoting as we go, based on feedback.

This process breaks into a series of sprint-like sequences, then, allowing for feedback loops, iteration, and engagement. This is quite the opposite of planning. Planning, as a culture, process and legislation, effectively means handing in a drawing of the ‘end-state’, the image at step 5 above, and stating clearly, “This will be done by 2022”, for example, and “it will cost this much but generate this much increase in property value”, and probably, “It’ll need this much concrete, and exactly these trees.”

The director of planning, or the deputy-mayor, signs that off. And then we all cross our fingers and pretend that it is going to happen precisely like this.

In reality, that is not how cities work. Planning is too static a process for the complex adaptive systems that comprise cities. It is too reliant on rational prediction as a belief system, rather than engagement, agility and adaptation.

We must Not-Plan. But this does not mean giving up. In fact, thanks to working closely with Mariana Mazzucato and Rainer Kattel over the last few years, we must pay more attention to setting ‘north stars’ as missions. We can focus on discussing and agreeing shared outcomes, as missions for our cities, yet we must work differently, given the world that missions must be delivered within.

In drawing from digital design practice and architecture and urban planning, this adaptive strategy describes an agile process based on prototyping culture, yet still results in a different approach to planning, hard and soft infrastructures, and urban transformation, not simply digital development. It also suggests new approaches to policy, as discussed in my posts City Design and Delivery Teams and Strategic Design for Public Purpose—and with similar points made brilliantly by Jennifer Pahlka in her ‘Delivery-Driven Policy’.

This strategy could be used to redesign a street, but also policy in general.

Daylighting streets

I later realised that this progressive revealing of life, by softening the hard car-based fabric on our city’s streets, is akin the idea of daylighting’ streets. This term usually describes the practice of deculverting urban rivers, removing the concrete from streets to reveal the original flows of water below. Great examples of daylighting exist from Seoul to Sheffield, producing multiple forms of value via integrated interventions, just as above.

Could we also see the rivers of metal currently lining our cities’ streets as something else to be excised, removing cars to uncover a more diverse life latent within?

We worked with many on the initial visions for MID, and across many different angles, but this small, relatively quick, piece of work sketching out a potential street transformation was probably the most interesting, and with the most potential. We’ll see if it is taken forward by the project, or Melbourne generally, but I’ve since described this sequence, and the thinking therein, many times since, in presentations, classes and studios all over the world. It tends to capture the imagination, and stimulates critical, constructive discussions. It’s also directly shaping some of our cities missions at Vinnova in Sweden. Do let me know what you make of it.


Ed. This playbook entry supports other articles (forthcoming shortly) about transforming cities, particularly from the angle of mobility. It could sit within the collection of strategic design entries Dark Matter & Trojan Horses, just as much as the technology-and-the-city collection But What Was The Question?

Dark Matter and Trojan Horses

Articles, cases and considerations regarding strategic design practice and thinking.

Dan Hill

Written by

Dan Hill

Designer, urbanist, etc. Director of Strategic Design at Vinnova, the Swedish Government’s innovation agency.. Visiting prof at UCL Bartlett IIPP & RMIT &c.

Dark Matter and Trojan Horses

Articles, cases and considerations regarding strategic design practice and thinking.

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