In May the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) released its comprehensive new Street Design Manual, an unprecedented resource for planners, urban designers, developers, and community groups. The result of a long, combined effort by the DOT and many other city agencies, including the Department of City Planning and Department of Environmental Protection, the Manual seeks to collect in one volume best practices in designing streets for safety, accessibility, livability, and sustainability.
If there’s something you want to know about city streets, it’s probably in here. The Manual provides guidelines for everything from the design of sidewalks, bike lanes, and crosswalks to the integration of appropriate lighting and street furniture, including benches, newsstands and public toilets. And it’s all done in accessible, jargon-free language with clear, well-integrated illustrations. The Manual’s hundreds of photographs present real solutions to street design problems in New York and cities as far away as San Francisco, Vancouver, and Paris. And full-color diagrams overlaid on aerial views of actual streets and intersections demonstrate just how the Manual’s guidelines can work together to make streets better.
Improvement of the pedestrian experience and mitigation of the environmental impact of streets both lie at the heart of this ambitious project. As one example, the Manual recommends traffic calming measures wherever possible through the installation of speed cushions and raised intersections, as well as the narrowing of the paved roadway intended for motor vehicles. Such measures, the Manual hopes, will not only provide larger and safer sidewalks for pedestrians, but will also allow more space for planted surfaces, bringing trees and grass to once barren concrete environments. In its hope for more sustainable streets, the Manual also assesses materials for sidewalks, streets, and other objects in terms of their environmental advantages and disadvantages. Porous and light-colored aggregate asphalts are recommended for better water drainage as well as the reduction of heat absorption.
The Manual is not meant as a resource for use exclusively by municipal agencies and urban designers in New York. The authors stress that their suggestions and solutions come from and are applicable in cities around the country and the world. These are universal solutions to the problems of city streets, and they’re meant to be consulted and understood by anybody interested in making cities better. It’s a strong statement, but as a set of guidelines and not ordinances, the extent to which the Manual will actually influence street design in New York and other cities remains in question. The DOT has promised that its future projects will adhere to the mission and specific standards set by the Street Design Manual, but it will take continued strong leadership from design professionals and municipal governments to make it successful.
The manual is available for viewing online, and it can also be purchased in hardcopy form (loose-leaf binder) for $35.