Book Review: NACTO Global Street Design Guide

NACTO Global Street Design Guide / Island Press
NACTO Global Street Design Guide / Island Press

The Global Street Design Guide is the latest in a series of publications from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) that re-imagines our urban streets as more multi-dimensional, aesthetic, efficient, safe and enjoyable spaces. The Global Street Design Guide uncovers what works in cities around the world, the cities that are trying to use streets for place making and city building. This invaluable guide brings together extremely useful information and metrics that can assist city administrations, urban designers, planners, landscape architects, and the public in forging new directions in street design. That said, this guide really needs to target city administrations and their engineering departments if it is to truly become an effective, transformative tool.

There still is a formidable battle going on out there between those who see streets as the domain of the automobile and those who don’t. For many cities, this polarized view has become extreme, perhaps, ironically, more so in progressive cities that have tried hard to integrate alternate forms of transportation and uses into the existing network. This guide can help make the case for multi-modal or, as otherwise known, complete streets.

Global Street Design Guide / NACTO
Global Street Design Guide / NACTO
Simple, clear plan diagrams communicating instantly the accommodation of people moving that could be achieved when a shift from a car oriented to multi-modal street is pursued / NACTO
Simple, clear plan diagrams communicating instantly the accommodation of people moving that could be achieved when a shift from a car oriented to multi-modal street is pursued / NACTO

Because many cities have differing standards, customs, and uses for their streets, this book cannot serve as a template for a specific design (nor do I think it’s intended to be). However, this guide contains all the background data, standards, and dimensions needed to help any designer build a layered, competent, and thorough street design in any part of the world. At the very least, it will help in reducing the guess work and sometimes incorrect assumptions that many designers make when it comes to how streets really work.

My own experiences in China highlight that streets there are very different than from those in Western countries. For example, it is not uncommon, along both major and secondary streets, to see commercial frontages, with widened pedestrian areas planned as public places, be partially or wholly taken over by parking. This parking then disrupts pedestrian flows and the ability to use streets as public spaces. Designers must deal with this reality and patiently try to transform practices.

In China, city planners typically set broad goals for better street design, but decisions to proceed one way or the other are made at a political level, then filter back down to the administrative level, before becoming a part of the design parameters of most streetscape projects. Nonetheless, things are changing. I can see the information in this book as being extremely helpful with developing strategic opening salvos during the preliminary stages of large scale streetscape projects in cities where I currently practice.

Additionally, the practical dimensional information in the guide should be well received by city planners in Asia, where in most cities Western urban design ideas are held in high regard. Because the information contained in this book has been guided by some of the world’s leading thinkers on city building, transportation, and open space design, it becomes an even more potent and convincing arrow in the urban design quiver.

There is a chapter on phasing and interim strategies that I found particularly compelling, since from experience, this is indeed a good way to build consensus with nervous or skeptical stakeholders.

I appreciate the book’s graphic style. The many illustrative drawings include diagrams, plans, sections and well-modeled, 3-D birds’ eye views. They are unadorned, factual, simple, and clear.

3D models, bird's eye view / NACTO
3D models, bird’s eye view / NACTO

Clear, concise sectional geometry options and how they respond the various user needs. This type of tool could be helpful when deciding which geometries could serve a particular project best.

Clear, concise sectional geometry options and how they respond the various user needs. This type of tool could be helpful when deciding which geometries could serve a particular project best / NACTO
Diagrams / NACTO

But I also found a few faults with the book. Including many global urban case studies is helpful and informative. However, from my own experience, there are many more good examples out there. Appreciating that a book like this simply cannot feature them all, perhaps a more comprehensive listing of lesser known, but exemplary global examples could be included in the next edition. Readers could then search more on their own.

The overall quality of the photographs is somewhat lacking. They could have perhaps been better placed, higher quality, and more impactful. In some cases they just didn’t seem like the right shot to communicate the idea. A few of the two page spreads register rather poorly along the spine margin resulting in some of the information irritatingly obscured.

All in all, the NACTO Global Street Design Guide should finds its way onto the shelves of all design and planning firms responsible for improving urban streets, regardless of where they practice. As important, it should also be in the hands of politicians, administrators, and engineers who collectively are very much in control of the direction our cities are heading.

Greg Smallenberg, FASLA, is a principal at PFS Studio, a global planning, urban design, and landscape architecture firm based in Vancouver, Canada. In addition to his North American and European work, he often undertakes large-scale planning, design and streetscape projects in Asia with Conglian Landscape Architecture and Planning Shanghai Ltd., a strategically allied joint enterprise with offices in Shanghai, Ningbo and Guangzhou, China.

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