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Urban Streets

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Urban Streets
Waterloo Road View - Geograph - 1798263.jpg
A typical city centre access route.
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The term Urban Streets covers a multitude of possibilities, but here we shall predominantly look at the origins of streets in towns and cities.

Market Places

The heart of many of the older towns and cities in the British Isles is the market place, not just physically but also historically. Indeed, the origin of many settlements is the market place, which was created perhaps at an important crossroads or a boundary between two 'tribal zones' as a transitional, seasonal thing, but over the decades if not centuries the market stalls became permanent, surrounded by homes, and then the stalls became shops as a fully-fledged town developed. In other places, market places were laid out as part of a more formal planned settlement, or as an extension of an existing settlement, particularly outside Abbey and Cathedral precincts.

The shape of these market places can often be informative, sometimes they were rectangular, sometimes triangular, and often little more than a very broad street. These last are most likely to have originated as a seasonal market away from a settlement, where the first range of houses was built behind the existing stalls, leaving a very wide street in between. Of course, in many places these stalls were later developed into full buildings, so narrowing the market place, and leaving buildings which once stood looking across the market, instead looking across narrow alleys at the backs of other buildings.

Rectangular markets are most likely a result of a secular foundation, whilst triangular markets tend to have developed out from a religious site, where the walls either side of the abbey gate were first used for market stalls, and the market then spreads out from there, tapering the further from the gate it reaches.

High Street

The High Street is a common street name in towns the length and breadth of the country. The term High comes from the same origin as 'High'way, meaning important, central. Today it is generally the busiest shopping street in the town, although this is more down to its origin as being one of the oldest parts of the town than anything else. Some parts of the country use other terms for the main shopping street, such as 'Fore Street' being used in the south and west of Somerset.

Grid Iron

Glasgow City Centre

The term Grid Iron, when referring to street, is more likely to conjour up images of American Cities than British or Irish. However, many of the 'new' cities that grew up during and after the Industrial Revolution used grid iron street patterns, particularly in the Victorian Years, when huge expanses of land were taken up with terraced housing. However, for true Grid Iron street patterns, we need look no further than Glasgow where the city is broken down into blocks, just like in the States. Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds amongst others have similar rectilinear patterns, but somewhat smaller in scale and less controlled than that seen in Glasgow. But the Grid Iron street pattern was not new in the Industrial revolution, as it is seen in planned medieval towns such as Salisbury and Winchelsea.

Many of the Midland cities in particular have lost any grid iron pattern that they may once have had because they became so overcrowded with back to back housing and slums that have since been demolished, not least after bombing in the war, leaving developers with blank canvases to over-write what went before.

A further development of the basic principles seen in Grid Iron street layouts is that of front and back streets, where each main street is paired by a back street, providing service access. This was particularly common with the rows and rows of Victorian terraces, even if many of the back streets were little more than alleys. The origins of these back roads were often as a means of emptying privies!

Garden City & Inter-war Developments

By the beginning of the 20th Century, the straight terraces of the Victorian era were increasingly less popular. The population were more aspirational, and expected more from their housing that regimented rows of identical properties. The changes had already started in the villa developments built for the middle and upper classes in the second half of the 19th century, but now the sweeping tree-lined avenues and crescents were being lined with smaller housing. It was not really until the inter-war period that such housing estates were built in large quantities, but the Garden City movement saw these principles put into practice before the first world war, and indeed some of the factory developments, such as Cadbury's Bournville or Levers Port Sunlight.

Instead of the barren yards and bare streets of the Victorian terraces, gardens were provided, trees planted along the streets and areas of parkland, large and small, interspersed between the houses. The streets were often built wider, as the pressures on squeezing as many houses as possible per acre were gone, indeed legislation had forced developers hands on this point. So wide streets, flanked with grassy strips planted with trees and then wide pavements. This design standard was extended between the wars to the big new roads, where dual carriageway boulevards were built with something akin to gardens along the edges, separating the access roads for the houses from the through traffic.

We are all familiar with the inter-war semi, but it wasn't just the housing that was new, the whole philosophy of how these estates were laid out had changed. Cul-de-sacs were the new thing, with short curving side roads spreading out to turning heads, providing small groups of houses that could potentially be sold at a premium to those lining the busier through routes. Crescents were also used to the same effect - the road had the benefits of being a through road, but without the traffic as it was just the long way round! These are, of course, all features which still hold true for todays developments, although perhaps with less of an effort to plant trees and create green spaces.

New Towns

A typical New Town curves and cul-de-sacs estate in Telford

As with the pre-war developments, post war New Towns have seen a variety of street forms used. Milton Keynes in particular is famous for its grid iron plan, punctuated with roundabouts, but many new towns have used a looser grid iron structure for the main roads, with each block then split up by more informal layouts. Other new towns use a grid iron layout for the central area, where shops, civic and public buildings fit neatly into right-angled plots, and then a more informal outer zone where the flexibility of garden shapes allows for curves and cul-de-sacs. In Scotland, the core of the new town of Cumbernauld uses a rectilinear plan, but few of the minor roads go through, instead becoming short cul-de-sacs, facing others across green belts. Indeed, in Cumbernauld in particular many of the street layouts push cars to the rear, or even distant parking areas, with houses accessed by paths through common gardens. This seems to be influenced by the heritage of Tenement blocks in Scotland's central belt.

Smaller new towns have also developed, with smaller town centres and they tend towards the informal 'garden city' layouts throughout, with just a pedestrian shopping precinct and a car park in the central zone.

The one benefit that many of the new towns have over and above their medieval predecessors is that there are generally good road links, with modern dual carriageways passing their centres, and connecting to the outer areas. These often use Grade Separation at the junctions in an attempt to speed up traffic. Of course, that was the plan. However, modern planners and often the population in general see these dual carriageways not as a speedy access route, but as a major barrier that needs to be navigated across. This change in view has perhaps come about as the towns grow, so the original central car park provision becomes woefully inadequate, forcing prices up. This leads many people to revert to walking into town, or perhaps never visiting the town at all, instead using out of town retail parks.

Modern Housing Estates

A typical "Garden City" type 21st century housing development in Wolverhampton.

Across Britain, houses have been built at a surprising rate over the last 50 years, with new estates springing up around towns, and turning villages into new towns, or worse dormitory villages where the services have often decreased as the population increased. These sprawling estates have gone through changes, with the early ones from the 1950s when building materials were once more freely available after the war to the early 1970s generally following the pre-war layouts with wide, curving roads, many short cul-de-sacs and swathes of open space. This was coupled with a mass of bungalows, which even today can look out of place against the older housing in smaller settlements.

Whilst the principle of short cul-de-sacs remained, estates of the later seventies and 1980s tended to be more rectilinear in plan, with fewer curves, and houses closer packed, leaving less open space. Following the housing crash around 1990, planners became more generous once more, with curving 'distributor' roads leading to small enclaves of housing. Open space also made a come back, although no longer as large areas, instead small roadside 'islands' of grass planted with a couple of trees or small bushes were used to give the impression of greenery without taking up too much land. Throughout this period, local authority developments tended towards the grid-iron layout as on overarching design, although often broken up with cul-de-sacs and small green spaces. Many developments also used the cars to the back, people to the front ideas with front doors opening onto common garden space, as seen in Cumbernauld above.

The estates of the 21st century display a mixture of many of the components used in the past. They are perhaps the most varied since the war, with small almost grid-iron plans used to suggest older developments, particularly on infill or brown field sites, whilst other estates seem to use the true garden city layouts, although these tend to be for the more exclusive developments, where trees, open space and curving cul-de-sacs make a significant difference to the value of the houses!

The various clauses written into planning agreements these days leads to a wealth of open space in new developments. However, this can become neglected and unloved, as it is often hidden away at the backs of houses, or in awkward corners. This makes parents uneasy about allowing kids to use it, elderly are uneasy about entering it, and so the ground can become the preserve of dog walkers and teenagers. An example in Somerset was earmarked for a kids play area, but the developers were so slow about installing the equipment that the original planning had expired, and when they came to reapply, in order to meet the original agreement for the development, the predominantly elderly residents who overlooked the land vociferously campaigned against the new application, and so it was refused. On the last visit, there were more brambles than anything else on the site.

Urban Streets
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