25. Suburban design – Sexing it up

In a recent article in this series I argued that our love for, and obvious ability to implement, crude standards for parking, highways design, zoning, density, heath and safety, etc. should be turned to advantage, through adopting instead a simple code that focused on getting the fundamentals of urbanism right.  I offered seven simple rules, that, it followed could improve the chance of delivering a better quality suburban public realm; although would never guarantee it.  They were:

  1. Streets should form a continuous urban network with all streets joining at least two others
  2. Streets should be designed for a maximum vehicle speed of 20mph
  3. Every street and / or building block should host at least two (preferably more) major land uses
  4. Buildings should face public space and create a coherent, continuous, building line
  5. Blank facades at street level should not be allowed
  6. Space for private front gardens and / or street trees should be provided
  7. Setbacks and front gardens, should never be covered by any more than 30% parking

The rules were inspired by a visit to Rome as part of an EU URBACT project that is grappling with questions of design, regulation and sustainability in the suburban built environment.  On that visit, the depressing state of Roman suburban design was all to obvious, although no more than the sprawling suburbs surrounding the many other partner cities associated with the project.

In Gdansk, for example, where we ventured next, despite the careful and exemplary reconstruction and restoration of the city centre during the second half of the last century (work that still continues), the suburbs are seemingly left almost entirely to the market.  The results are hugely variable in their quality, but favour smart but gated enclaves for the wealthy, and often soulless estates for the rest.  There, interestingly, a minority of housing developers are attempting something more democratic and enlightened, in the process sticking pretty close to the seven simple rules above with the exception, as yet, of number 3.

Gdansk, gated enclaves for the wealthy

Gdansk, soulless estates for the rest

Gdansk, enlightened developers do exist

In the latest leg of the project we have been treated to something that does meet all the rules, and suggests one more – Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm.  Of course Stockholm, like all large European cities has its fair share of suburban sprawl; sprawl which is largely the same as anywhere else in Europe, except for the trees that remind you that you are in Scandinavia.  But Stockholm is a city of islands, and in places, this waterscape is used to great advantage to give the suburban landscape a more distinct character, Hammarby Sjöstad is one of these.  Sitting on the Hammarby Lake to the south of the city, the development is suburban in location, yet urban in nature, featuring a network of clearly urban streets and spaces, attractive blocks and a high quality public realm.  Taking each of my rules in turn:

  1. The street network is well connected, direct and legible, with streets forming a grid that connects the lakeside to the development’s main spine along which a tram and bus routes run. To aid way finding, streets are punctuated by a series of local (but subtle) landmark buildings, or terminated by more dramatic landmarks situated in areas that surround the development, a church, chimney, etc.

Hammarby Sjöstad, continuous urban network
  1. Streets are short, narrow, lined by parking and have regular turnings, all of which clearly identifies to drivers that speeds should be kept low. Only on the main spine is there potential to drive faster, although there regular pedestrian crossings, turns and traffic calming measures have much the same effect without the need for signage.
Hammarby Sjöstad, slow streets
  1. The development is truly mixed use, featuring a wide range of commercial uses, cafes and restaurants, local shops, and a full range of community facilities, including schools, a library, sports facilities (internal and external), play areas, health facilities and a church. Almost all blocks have a mix, and typically ground floor space is flexibly designed so that uses can come and go without affecting the overall urban quality of the street space.
Hammarby Sjöstad, mix of uses
  1. The urban feel is maintained by the continuous street wall that establishes a strong building line and a series of well-defined, well-overlooked urban street spaces that feel safe, well used and crime free. Building heights vary from four to eight stories, with street widths set to maintain the sense of enclosure.
Hammarby Sjöstad, continuous building line
  1. The blocks themselves are lined with attractive, clearly contemporary buildings, exhibiting a range of styles and treatments whilst avoiding premadona nas. Ground floors are often active or alternatively carefully landscaped and designed to give a sense of the activity inside, whilst maintaining privacy.
Hammarby Sjöstad, active frontages
  1. The whole development is exceptionally well landscaped, both in communal and private areas. Although the density of the scheme means that few private front gardens are possible, careful landscaping of the public/private interface reinforces the character of individual units, whilst the whole development is interspersed with a network of green pedestrian only routes with very high quality landscaping.  The best of these, along the canal and the lake provide an innovative and continuously changing set of edge treatments that pay a large part in establishing the unique character of the development.
Hammarby Sjöstad, high quality landscaping
  1. Parking is never allowed to dominate the scheme, and is handled by a series of discrete parking courts, underground parking, on street parking and a car pool to which all residents have access. The on street parking does not detract from the street quality because of the high quality public space within which it is set.

Hammarby Sjöstad, on street parking

In essence, the development meets every urbanism rule above, and does this whilst adopting the most up to date sustainable technologies, many of which are subtle and do not unduly intrude on the qualities of place that give Hammarby Sjöstad its character.  Yet one more quality is critical to its success, and might be added as an eighth simple rule to supplement the seven already offered:

  1. Allow the trees, landscape and natural features of the site to determine its layout and character.
Hammarby Sjöstad, integration of the landscape

Hammarby Sjöstad does this in spades, using the lake and canal as primary structuring features of the development, whilst preserving trees, higher ground and other natural features in order to give character to the public and private spaces of the scheme, and to inspire the creative talents of the development’s architects who have had something to respond to in the absence of any built context.

Hammarby Sjöstad shows us that it can be done, we can make suburban design sexy once more!  Let’s have some here!

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


January 2010