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Making a street: the case of Errol Gardens

08th May 2012

By Rob Cowan

In my previous blog I pointed to the Crown Street development in Glasgow as an example of good urban design. Let’s look at it more closely. In particular, given the rarity these days of developments that include anything like a successful new street, let’s look at one street there: Errol Gardens, one of the residential streets in the first phase of the Crown Street development.

The Crown Street area, part of Glasgow’s Gorbals district, is about a mile from the city centre, immediately south of the River Clyde. It is hard to think of a more successful attempt to create an urban neighbourhood. What stands out is the scale; the ambition of its attempt to create a new urban form (inspired by an old one); and the determination – sustained through almost two decades – that has been necessary to make the project a reality.

The Crown Street development – of which Errol Gardens is typical – marks the rediscovery of the urban street. Glasgow’s rich tradition of tenement housing had been devalued by overcrowded, badly maintained examples that had deteriorated into slums. Planning and architectural fashion of the 1950s and 60s proposed an alternative: destroying urban streets and replacing them with heroic modern buildings set in open green landscape.

Nowhere was that vision implemented more boldly or more disastrously than in Glasgow’s Gorbals. When the development of the 1960s and 70s itself came to be cleared, the question arose of what to replace it with. The masterplanners’ answer for the Crown Street area was a layout of connected streets, fronted by housing inspired by the city’s traditional stone tenements. It is striking how closely what was built corresponds to the original masterplan. There has been a great deal of public involvement in the planning, design and development processes over the years (leading to changes to prevent rat-running, for example), but the street layout and design principles have hardly changed.

The first cause of Crown Street’s extraordinary achievement can be found in the determination of the stakeholders to work together. In the early years much seems to have been done on the basis of trust. In the words of one observer, ‘Stuart Gulliver [the then chief executive of the Glasgow Development Agency] declared that the project was going to happen, and persuaded all the other chief executives of the partner organisations to act accordingly.’ That infectious sense of certainty made success possible. Another reason for the project’s success has been the impressive commitment and ability of a few key people who have been responsible for implementing it.

Inclusive design

People with disabilities have been represented on the various committees involved in the Crown Street development. There are accessible parking bays outside the offices of the New Gorbals Housing Association in Errol Gardens and others on the adjacent Crown Street. The parking layout has implications for easy use of the residential streets.

Vehicles are kept well away from the pavements, which are wide and open for pedestrian use, and suitable to the needs of people with a range of impairments. The traffic flow is controlled by providing paved areas which are also pedestrian crossing places. The mix of the paving’s colour, tone and texture is aesthetically pleasing, and it has practical implications for people with visual impairments. The positioning of traditional granite setts and a mix of colour and tone in the paving provides a tactile cue for people with visual impairments who are approaching places where vehicles are parked.

How it works

Errol Garden leads into Crown Street itself. This mixed-use street provides a small supermarket, a library and several smaller shops, including cafes, butchers, newsagents and chemists, giving life and identity to the wider area. The size of the Errol Gardens buildings and their location at or near the edge of the pavement creates a sense of enclosure that is the mark of a real urban street. Generally living rooms front on to the streets, while bedrooms face the quieter back courts.

In designing the Crown Street development, a difficult question, as ever, was where to provide parking space for the residents’ cars. Creating car courts within the perimeter blocks of housing would have compromised the privacy of what is safe, communal landscaped space. The access points (whether gaps or archways in the street frontage) would have reduced the continuity of the building line and the streets’ sense of enclosure.

The solution has been to provide parking in double rows in the centre of the streets, at right angles to the building frontages, in addition to parking along the pavement edge. This avoids excessively cluttering the roadspace immediately in front of the houses and flats, yet keeps the cars in view of the residents. The hope was that in time the trees in the centre of the street would grow and mature to soften the cars’ visual impact and generally to green the streets. That this is not happening particularly successfully is thought to be due to the tree roots being compacted by the cars parking over them. This is being remedied in later phases of development, it is hoped, by providing larger root pits.

Showing itself to be an urban rather than suburban street, Errol Gardens is fairly lively. The masterplan connected the area back into the network of local streets: for residents over a wide area the street is a route to the local shops and, further afield, to the city centre. For some people who work in the city centre it is a place to park before making a short walk to work: more cars are parked in the Crown Street area by day than at night. In time, parking restrictions and enforcement will probably be introduced to reduce such parking by commuters. For the moment such parking has the beneficial side effect of enabling the local shops (in the words of one observer) to punch above their weight. 

As with even the most successful scheme developed in difficult and complex circumstances, the Crown Street development could have been even better. Its most important streets could have had more of the character of boulevards had their continuity not been interrupted in the interests of preventing rat-running, and if later phases of development had extended them more effectively. The north/south streets could have had the more intimate, mews-like feel (compared with those, like Errol Gardens, that run east/west) that the masterplanners had intended, had the highway engineers imposed a more municipal character.

Life could have been easier and more pleasant for pedestrians if the highway engineering had not, in places, followed the common practice of being excessively solicitous of the needs of vehicles. The character of the area as a whole could have been expressed more strongly had its coherence not been compromised by a lack of coordination and consistency of detailing, and by failures in maintenance. And the area could have been more lively and better integrated into surrounding areas if some of the original intentions to create easy vehicular and pedestrian links had not been frustrated by the failure to downgrade certain roads bounding the area.

The long-term success of the Crown Street development is not guaranteed. Any lack of robustness in a development in such an urban setting will lead to an erosion of the place’s quality unless it is very determinedly managed and maintained. New Gorbals Housing Association is highly effective in this, still showing the commitment that created the development so successfully in the first place, but the effects of the council’s management and maintenance regime are less positive.

The basic elements at Errol Gardens and the wider area are working well. The housing is popular. The local shopping is thriving. The communal space within the blocks provides safe places for children to play (sometimes to the annoyance of residents without children). A common failure of urban design, the lack of clarity about what is private and what is public space, has been avoided. Errol Gardens and its wider setting are a real achievement.

 

 

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