Quality streets

Buxton Market Place in 1899Street quality is on the public agenda. A year ago, Eric Pickles challenged councils to get rid of unnecessary signs, railings and advertising hoardings. Government guidance makes clear that ‘less is more’ and that excessive signs and street clutter have a negative impact on the success of the street as a place. So how can local councils take steps to address this? And what can local communities do to help shape their environment?

English Heritage has a long-standing interest in improving the quality of the public realm.  Much attention is given to the maintenance and restoration of historic buildings, but if the view of the building is marred by a badly planned and maintained street then the efforts can be wasted.

Over the last ten years, there has been a revolution in thinking with the realisation that better quality public spaces in town and city centres lead to improved environments that encourage those visiting, living and working there to use and enjoy walking around the area. This also chimes in with both climate change and health debates. English Heritage has been a participant with this new thinking since 2000 with Streets for All, our well-received guidance manual on managing streets (www.english-heritage.org.uk/streetsforall).


The benefits of improving street quality are not just aesthetic. Keeping a street’s individuality helps to create a sense of place, which in turn has community and regeneration benefits. Well designed, well ordered and well maintained streets are an expression of a confident and caring community. Chaotic and cluttered streets can be a symptom of a community in decline with low self-esteem. Consultation with estate agents showed that the state of the street and public space also has an effect on house prices and saleability, with the quality of highways and paving being a particular problem. 

The principles advocated in Streets for All – such as removing unnecessary signs and clutter and thinking carefully about any additions to the street – may seem common sense. But an informed look at England’s streets shows that most would benefit from the application of some simple measures.

Historic street furniture should be retained and kept in good repair. As well as adding interest and reinforcing local character, historic furniture such as bollards or mileposts can often tell a story about the local area.  But the finest townscapes often have the minimum amount of street furniture. In some streets, as much as 70 per cent of all street furniture is unnecessary. Street audits, carried out by conservation staff in conjunction with highways staff, can identify redundant or superfluous furniture.

Local community groups can also help, and can extend the survey to include a record of historic furniture and paving of merit. Dozens of such groups have responded to Civic Voice’s Street Pride campaign. Street audits can identify where signage can be minimised, or where signs can be fixed to existing posts or buildings to reduce the number of poles obstructing the pavement. A simple audit form is available on the English Heritage website www.english-heritage.org.uk/saveourstreets.         

The Buxton case study demonstrates how a local authority has been involving communities in deciding how to improve their town’s appearance at a strategy level.

Much of the progress made in the public realm has been possible because of the growing support to those who question the traditional, traffic-focused approach to street design.  The ‘place-making’ agenda has been helped by the exemplary examples of a small – but increasing – number of forward-thinking authorities who have been prepared to push the boundaries of conventional practice. 

Strong leadership and understanding of the key principles has been shown to be a vital component of successful streets, providing the momentum to drive things forward and question any barriers presented. For example, the much lauded redesign of Kensington High Street would not have taken place without the leadership and personal drive of one of the local authority’s members.

Improving the quality of our streets can not only enhance the surroundings, it links to a range of other objectives, from regeneration to promoting walking and cycling. Effective action will involve a range of bodies: local authorities, utility companies, statutory undertakers, the Highways Agency and, of course, local communities themselves.  Partnerships need to be established between planning and highway experts, to share understanding and build consensus of what is achievable and what works. This will require persistence, an appreciation of the wider benefits, and a strong leader to take personal responsibility for enhancing the quality of England’s streets. But the evidence from a few places shows that the results will be worth the effort.

Completed in 2003, the revamp of Kensington High Street set the standard for others to follow. The design objectives were to redress the balance from vehicles to pedestrians, and create a coherent, legible and more accessible street. Nearly a decade on, the street is a testament to the thoughtful design and quality materials used.

This landmark design would not have happened without the leadership of Daniel Moylen, then deputy leader of Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. By questioning traditional traffic-led design, he refocused attention on pedestrian users of the street.

To declutter the street, every item was scrutinised and its use put to the test by asking “is it needed?” Those judged necessary were carefully sited to minimise the impact on the footway, for example by lining them up at the front of the wide footway. 

Crossing the wide street was looked at from the pedestrian perspective. Wherever possible, guardrails were removed and crossings made single stage, avoiding the cramped ‘cattle pens’ required for two stage crossings.  Where such crossings were unavoidable, the central refuge was carefully designed without guardrails. The decision to adopt this design was taken by the full council, thus taking liability off the officers. Guardrails have been installed where there is a clear need, such as outside the underground station.

The quality of the design and construction of the footways is refreshing. The brushed stainless steel street furniture is shamelessly modern, and shows how one column design can be used for highway and footway lighting and traffic signals. The central reservation has been used to install a large array of cycle racks, broken up by the planting of semi-mature trees.

A demonstration of the importance a local community attaches to the public realm can be found at Buxton, a town characterised by its Georgian and Victorian spa town architecture.  It has been regenerated over the last 20 years with assistance from English Heritage. 

The local community was heavily involved in the development of a Design and Place Making Strategy. This will be used to inform developers about Buxton’s special qualities and how to protect and enhance them. The urban design consultants, Gillespies, used an ‘enquiry by design’ approach to facilitate a series of workshops, which led to an overall vision for Buxton and a set of design principles to make the vision happen. The Strategy concludes that: ‘Urban design is not just about the design of buildings. It is also the complex inter-relationship between different buildings and the relationship between buildings and streets, squares, parks and other spaces that make up the public realm.’ Priorities that emerged from the local community include:
•    Character: Reinforce the distinct identity of the town centre
•    A Quality Public Realm: Create public spaces that are safe, comfortable, well maintained, welcoming and accessible to everyone
•    Ease of Movement: Make the town centre easy to get to and move around in, particularly for pedestrians. Create a town centre that both residents and visitors can understand and find their way around
•    Adaptability & Diversity: Create a town centre that can adapt to change and with variety and choice


Civic Voice – the national charity for the civic movement – is spearheading a campaign to tackle street clutter. With English Heritage’s support its Street Pride campaign has helped dozens of civic societies and other local community groups take action. Groups are provided with a specially prepared street survey to identify clutter and learn from workshops and each other about how best to influence their local council.

Civic Voice has backed this up with informative leaflets on poles, signs, guard rails and bollards. Its campaign has been praised by government ministers as an example of the Big Society in action, and Communities Minister Andrew Stunnell MP has joined Marple Civic Society in a street survey of his constituency.

Civic Voice is also lobbying the government to give communities more rights to require action to tackle clutter in their area. It has raised the media profile with coverage on national and local radio and television increasing awareness of the problem and triggering more local action. Its latest campaign highlights the financial cost of street clutter as well as its visual impact and shows how better streets can cost less too.  The combination of local and national action by volunteers who care passionately about their area and know it best is starting to have visible results.

Written by the English Heritage



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