How do we make our main roads better, bigger and more beautiful? We need to Create boulevards

Clapham Road, south London, 2011. Image: Getty.

Create Streets on the need to rethink London’s highway.

Experts have had a tough time of it of late. From politician to pollster, those in power stand accused of misunderstanding what people want. Or not caring. Or worse. Confidence in institutions and their intentions is at rock bottom.

We often see in community engagement work we do that councils’, architects’ or developers’ motivations are assumed – unfairly – to verge on the actively malign. Society is changing. People no long believe that the man (it usually was a man) in Whitehall or Town Hall knows best. They expect to influence what happens near where they live and work. And, our research shows, they are more inclined to support development when they are genuinely involved – not just in a tawdry and ersatz PR exercise.

But – to state, I hope, the obvious – we do need experts. If anything, in urban design, we need them to be more expert. David Halpern, the Director of the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insight Unit (the ‘nudge unit’) has observed that

“architecture and planning does not have an empirical, evidence-based tradition in the sense that psychologists or the... sciences would understand. There are very few studies that ever go back to look at whether one type of dwelling or another, or one type of office or another, has a systematic impact on how people behave, or feel, or interact with one another.”

How do we fix this? Well the first bit of good news is that it is becoming easier, thanks to big data, to research associations between urban form, design and beauty with wellbeing and long term value.

And the answers are getting clearer. A walkable, green, structure of human scale, blocks and streets that clearly define the public and private realm with a sense of place and which most people find beautiful is, put simpler, better for our health and a wiser long-term investment. So designers need to be more empirical in their understanding of wellbeing.


The second bit of good news is that this type of low to medium rise, high density but high beauty development is – guess what? – more popular with the public. There is wisdom in crowds. We therefore need to get better at helping residents work with designers and developers collectively to unlock what both the data and the polling support.

How do we do this while also facing up to London’s challenges? The capital’s global future may seem less certain than 12 months ago. But it still faces major growing pains: more people need more places to live and move around more. Some 31m journeys are made on TfL’s network every day, and that’s increasing. How can we deal with this, when London also has a housing crisis and an air quality crisis?

At Create Streets we see that our major roads offer a potential opportunity to be more beautiful, more intensely use and more liveable whilst still working as major roads and acting as a showcase for a better approach. At the moment, to say the least, most major roads are pretty unpleasant. People don’t tend to want to live, work or play on them. They are often polluted and noisy. Homes on them are less desirable than homes round the corner – they typically sell for far less.

Working with a network of residents and architects, we’ve started a programme called Create Boulevards, to encourage goal-focused debate and discussion about the future of these streets.  We think the answer is “Boulevardisation”. We don’t necessarily propose precisely what you might see in other countries, but rather major roads with similar characteristics: greener, more beautiful, and carrying more than just cars but pedestrians, cyclists, express buses and possibly trams too.

The Old Kent Road. Low density. Low amenity. Google StreetView.

How to do it? At present, some of London’s biggest roads operate in a bit of a democratic no-man’s land. They are within London boroughs but are operated by TfL. This means that the usual, more direct means of influencing local affairs – through councils – isn’t really there. TfL do undertake some consultation, and do some of it very well. However, they understandably have a remit to consider London’s overall travel first and foremost rather than keeping that requirement in necessary tension with other ends.

We could not find a forum for collectively and comprehensively discussing how to make our major streets better – so, we decided to create one. Using our social media platform, and the network of local resident groups we have built up through our community work, we put out a call for suggestions for roads that people thought would be good candidates to Create Boulevards.

We got dozens of suggestions from all over London and eventually whittled them down to three areas: Baring Road in Lewisham, the Holloway Road in Islington and Clapham Road, round the corner from our office in Lambeth. We chose them for the opportunity they presented, as representative of London, and due to the presence of already well-organised local groups.

We then arranged for some architects and urban designers to team up with residents and us in a series of mini-charrettes to create a three stage set of proposals going from the tactical easy wins, to the more strategic and profound.

In all, the underlying questions were the same: how can we make these streets bigger, better and more beautiful? How can we house more people in a better environment that still ‘works’ in getting from A to B?

(It’s worth stressing that all the firms involved (including ourselves) gave their time pro bono. We’d like to thank HTA Design, JTP Architects and our regular collaborators Alexandra Steed URBAN and Urban Engineering Studio for their much appreciated generosity.)

The time spent on each project was much less than one would do if it was for real. But despite these constraints, the results were, we think, fantastic. Intelligent, nuanced decisions were made by people who were given the space and time to make and discuss their points reflecting both local knowledge and professional expertise.

Possible new mansion blocks, Baring Road, Grove Park. Image: HTA Design.

For example, on Baring Road in Lewisham, we found that the town centre didn’t actually feel like a town centre: density actually reduces from the surrounding suburbia. Residents were more than happy to accept, even argue for, intensification, with higher more urban mansion blocks (which most insisted should be beautiful), as it would bring more life to the area, and help revitalise it. Conversation quickly linked this to how streets could use new trees and narrowed traffic lanes to permit cycleways.

In the wide stretches of Holloway Road, residents and JTP worked up an ambitious set of steps to remove a speed-inducing gyratory while making the road a better one to live and walk in. Obviously following the latest research, they even suggested a new hedge to protect a central walkway. Create Hedges, anyone?

The Holloway Hedge. Image: JTP.

In Clapham Road, our mini-charrette identified a row of shops near the Oval tube station, with large, mostly-unused paved areas in front of them and enough unused old phone boxes and clutter to fill a skip. Here everyone suddenly realised was an Oval High Street in embryo.

We identified tactical steps to remove clutter, create raised side street crossings, build more height near the tube and then, more ambitiously, created a raised street with tactile paving opposite St Mark’s church and round the corner from the Oval.

A Future Oval High Street? Image: Create Streets.

This was only an exercise. But greener and more pleasant London Boulevards are very possible – and very fundable via higher density. It’s not necessarily a leap into an unknown future either. Before the car was dominant, our towns and major routes were not designed around them. Just look at the photos of Finchley Road in north London with wider pavements and more greenery.

Finchley Road in the 1960s. Image: Create Streets.

Elsewhere the wider Create Boulevards work has shown that there is space for modes of transport other than the car. Alexandra Steed and Francis Terry’s sketches of Boulevardised Euston Road and Kingsway and our own street studies show there is often enough space to introduce trams (or high speed express bus routes or trackless trams) on many of our major roads.

From Euston Road to Euston Boulevard? Image: Francis Terry Associates and Create Streets.

Putting the King back into Kingsway? Image: Alexandra Steed Urban.

Exercises are easier than reality. But real decisions could be more like this. And city authorities are improving. Look at the pioneering work of Janette Sadiq-Khan in New York or great improvements in London, like Great Queen Street or Windrush Square.


  Create Boulevards has, we dare to hope, shown that street design and street density can and should be linked and that approaching a community with an open mind, a blank sheet of paper and some pencils can lead to better, more popular results than the old tired design and then ‘consult’ model. Community engagement can get results that will solve some of London’s most pressing issues – and do so with an increased chance of local support.

Thanks to the IT revolution, it is easier, quicker and cheaper to access the views of a wider number of people, via social media and online polling and engagement platforms, than ever before. We dare to see this as a model for how the rest of the city should be thought about, planned and built. Boulevards for ever!

Nicholas Boys Smith is the founding director, and Kieran Toms a researcher, a t Create Streets.

The outcomes of the three Create Boulevards mini-charrettes will be exhibited tomorrow, 30 June, at 75 Cowcross Street, EC1M 6EL as part of the London Festival of Architecture. The professional and resident teams who worked on proposals will also be discussing their work in a discussion chaired by CityMetric editor Jonn Elledge. You can (still just) sign up here for one of the last few places.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.