Oli Davey, Urban Movement
I’ve often thought that my profession – traffic engineering – is the one with the most under-appreciated (and under-exploited) potential to do good. And a few years back I read a book which does a good job of helping to explain why this potential so often fails to be realised. It’s called The Shaping of Us and it’s written by Lily Bernheimer. But let’s start with an abridged version of my case for traffic engineering.
If you want to make people healthier, wealthier and happier, to reduce their environmental impact and to strengthen social cohesion, I believe that no other profession has the potential to do so to the extent that traffic engineering can. This is why I have no problem telling anyone that will listen that the job of designing our urban streets is the most important in the world. The big problem is – as you might have been about to point out – very few traffic engineers seem willing or able to realise this positive potential. In fact, we’re commonly painted as ‘the bad guys’ of street design.
A big part of the explanation for our profession’s seeming inability to consistently create public spaces that realise their full potential concerns another profession that almost never gets mentioned in connection with our streets. Whilst it has become increasingly common for traffic engineers to recognise and incorporate the contributions of urban designers and landscape architects in their work, the profession of Environmental Psychology remains a mystery to most.
This specialism concerns itself with the relationship between people and the environments in which they live their lives – how these places impact our feelings, behaviour and identities, and how they shape the way we interact and communicate. The places we inhabit function like a secret script directing our actions. It’s a script we play a part in writing by choosing where to work, where to socialise and where we call home. But although humans have demonstrated huge power to manipulate our environment, too often we appear to have created towns and cities that work against our best interests.
The full potential of our streets will not be realised until we first understand that the design of every space in which we live our lives, including the street on which we live, the walk to the train station, our local high street and our kids journey to school, shapes us in ways that most of us seem unable or unprepared to grasp. And this (lack of) understanding applies just as much to other professions involved in street design as it does to traffic engineering.
Whether we like it or not, and whether we yet acknowledge it or not, we have the power to change ourselves by changing our streets. A greater appreciation of environmental psychology can enable us all make better choices.
So, rather than simply asking, ‘What can we do to our streets?’ us traffic engineers – and others – would do well to also ask, ‘What can our streets do to us?’.