I will never forget the two snaking lines of statuesque, street lights below me as my Air France plane flew over Paris en route to Manchester on my first trip out of Australia since being unwell and thinking I would never be able to travel again. Luckily, I was pronounced well enough now to go on what was an urgent, emotional trip to see my mother. I tell you this not to be uncomfortably personal but to reflect on how streets, even from the air and in outline only, with their structure and certainty, can reassure that life somehow is continuing - and will continue.

The Champs Elysees, the Fifth Avenues, Omotesandos, Collins Streets and increasingly (even if on a smaller-scale) the Pitt Streets, are icons that matter. They are a land-based version of the more traditional, water-based Australian cultural identifier, the swimming pool (fittingly Australia’s most visited International Architecture Biennale exhibition on record was the Australian Institute of Architects’ Pool, curated by Aileen Sage Architects [Isabelle Toland and Amelia Holliday] with Michelle Tabet).

Sydney’s Pitt Street Mall and New York’s Fifth Avenue are icons that matter. Images: The York Apartments and Holiday Inn Express

But what promise, and power, might the future street hold? What are its functions and how might it adapt to the changing patterns emerging from global trends indicating increases in bike riding and walking and decreases in automobile use?

As part of its promotion of livable, workable and sustainable cities, Smart Cities Council of Australia New Zealand recently collaborated with the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects in Streets 2.0, an event at the Museum of Sydney bringing together engineers, landscape architects, planners, architects, technologists and policy makers. 

“Our streets are the perfect opportunity to design for social outcomes, and environmental outcomes, as opposed to just being corridors for car movement,” said Shahana McKenzie, CEO of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects.

More specifically, "will autonomous and connected vehicles unlock productive spaces in and around our streets?" asked Adam Beck, Executive Director of Smart Cities Council Australia New Zealand, especially as streets make up to 30 per cent of the land area of many cities.

"How far will green streets, smart streets, and through planning, design, operation and maintenance, catering for everyone of all ages and abilities, complete streets, prepare us to take advantage of the opportunity for increasing the walking, cycling, transit and green street strategies in the coming years?" the forum asked.  

Many cities around Australia are targeting street trees, urban tree canopy coverage to help build resiliency to climate change, McKenzie said, adding that the essential shade they offer retailers is also likely to have the economic spin-off of attracting customers. Conversely, shopping centres stop people in their tracks and need to be more open and street-friendly.

Street trees assist in fighting climate change, while also attracting customers. Image: Deeproot 

One of the big imponderables is the projected impact of autonomous cars, even to safety implications for instance when they are not programmed for child running out into the road. Sarah Hill, Chief Executive of the Greater Sydney Commission, speaking at the Green Building Council of Australia’s November lunch, Australian cities - From livability to lovability, had been in no doubt that “driverless cars will revolutionise the way we think about our cities and how we plan”.

How will streets full of such vehicles differ from today’s; will they open up a city to becoming an “experimentation agora”, the classical market place, figuratively if not literally, as Brook Dixon of the ACT Government and winner of the Winston Churchill fellowship, envisioned (ACT is the most networked place in Australia, he proudly repeated).

What will we be doing with the masses of profile-driven, customised information increasingly able to show people real-time change? Beck cautioned that the city shapers are losing the battle as technology dominates. Jessica Christiansen– Franks, of CoDesign Studio, asked how do we (designers, councils and others) want these cars to behave and how do we design for that? What is the problem we are trying to solve (could it be obesity?) and how can street planning and design help tackle these? We need to encourage people to behave differently but we also have to design to allow them to do this.

Lord Richard Rogers recently checking out the Barangaroo office towers Lend Lease designed suggested that we should try to emulate somewhere like London where catching the tube is second nature unlike Sydney’s City Circle line. The Guardian Weekly’s report on the popularity of Jakarta’s shopping malls for a relaxing time in air-conditioning away from the city’s notorious traffic jams points to congestion not just being a Sydney problem. Streets 2.0 intends to get to Australia’s other major cities keeping practitioners and policy makers engaged in the future development of our streets.  

Broadening the debate also is the launch of Marion’s List from Parlour, the first online register of women in Australian architecture and the built environment disciplines. The idea is to allow more voices to be heard in the industry and importantly it also “aims to broaden the image of what an architect looks like.” It was named in honour of Marion Mahony Griffin, who was celebrated by scholar Alice Friedman as a ‘builder of communities and connections” – which also, of course, what streets do. 

Deborah Singerman runs her own writing, editing, proofing and project managing consultancy specialising in the urban built environment and community. @deborahsingerma; [email protected]