Streets Ahead

Camilla Siggaard Andersen
13 min readMar 6, 2021

Integrating Design and Technology in Future Streets (2017, co-authored)

What will our future streets, and thereby cities, look and feel like? Caption: Altered photograph of Chris Burden’s kinetic art piece “Metropolis II” on display at LACMA, Los Angeles.

Originally published on as a white paper in April 2017. Authors: C.S. Andersen & J. Thayne.

Updating the urban experience

If you have visited any of the world’s great cities, the sounds, sights, and smells of its streets are likely to be indelibly engrained in your memory. Taxis honking. Kids playing on side streets. The pleasant aroma of freshly prepared food. The unpleasant odor of overflowing garbage bins. The chill of standing in the shadow of a skyscraper. The warmth of packed bodies on the bus. These sensations are as enervating to some as they are energizing to others.

But regardless of how we experience the streets today, the streets of tomorrow will likely be very different from what we currently know; ride-sourcing apps, streetlight sensors, programmable traffic lights, and other rapidly developing technologies, are already altering how our city streets function, look, and feel.

So far, these advancements have been driven mainly by the need to solve individual problems: filling empty seats within cars, giving transit buses green lights on congested routes, and guiding tourists to the nearest attractions, for example. However, fully marrying up these technologies with design to create the ideal version of a future street, a street that leverages technology for the benefits of all its users, has yet to be achieved.

Working together to achieve shared goals

Technologists, urban planners, consultants, and local governments alike, all recognize the value of joining technology and design to deliver an integrated, multi-modal street network. Such a network will improve accessibility, safety, air quality, and congestion, while giving people more space and time in their daily routines. Conversely, a disjointed patchwork of closed-source technologies driven mainly by private interests will limit the extent of the benefits, which is why a more holistic approach is so desirable.

A disjointed patchwork of closed-source technologies driven mainly by private interests will limit the extent of the smart street’s benefits, which is why a more holistic approach is so desirable.

Inherent in the idea of an integrated, multi-modal network, is the assumption that people want to move to nodes, rather than dwell in between them. In the case of city streets, we challenge this assumption. Streets typically take up more than 25 percent of a city core’s geographic footprint, which is why it is so important that they are, in and of themselves, also places where people can meet and engage in stationary activities. The streets we build in the future must be able to deliver all these opportunities.

This thought-piece is a collaboration between two idealist-realists, a technologist at Siemens (now with the City of Los Angeles) and an urban planner at Gehl (now with Hassell), who believe that in this, the 21st Century, streets should be public places where people are prioritized. Where residents can visit their neighbors on sunny or rainy days. Where children can feel safe playing. Where anyone can access multiple modes of transport, motorized and non-motorized. Where businesses can interact with customers, inside and outside of their stores. Where safety is assured, and spontaneity is embraced and encouraged. And we believe that these places should be envisioned leveraging all the new technologies at hand.

We believe that if we continue to separate the urban environment from its technological capabilities, we will be losing out on an important opportunity to re-imagine what we really want the urban experience to be.

Exactly how this future looks, feels, smells, and sounds we leave up to our audience: those technologists, planners, consultants, local governments, and city dwellers who design, operate, install, or simply use city streets. We offer instead five guidelines for the capabilities we think the future street must have, if it is to realize its full potential. The guidelines range from the street’s operation, to its use, to its flexible design, to its openness. Prior to each guideline, we outline the present-day challenges, which the specific guideline addresses. We do this, because we believe that if we continue to separate the urban environment from its technological capabilities, we will be losing out on an important opportunity to re-imagine what we really want the urban experience to be: Not just a place that organizes itself efficiently, but a place that encourages citizen engagement and spontaneity — a city for people.

How will the future streets operate on a day-to-day basis? Caption: Chelsea, New York, viewed from the Highline.

Guidelines for future streets

Maintenance and operations — the self-coordinating street

Today, the City’s urban planning teams are faced with the unenviable task of having to study, understand and make plans for how to coordinate every single street in the metropolis. In doing so, they designate clear areas for various transport modes, and they set time frames for when different activities can take place where. They coordinate traffic lights, dedicate zones for loading goods, determine road widths, discover and replace potholes, water plants, organize garbage removal, and so on.

Throughout the day and week, there are dozens of “ideal” street layouts, and the detailed patterns are almost impossible for the human mind to comprehend, let alone coordinate, which means that however carefully this “management ballet” is organized, there will always be times when the street fails some, or overcompensates for others. On the City side, this results in a lot of wasted resources of both hours and money. On the citizen side, people have to deal with poor maintenance, like overflowing garbage bins and withered trees, and with more practical inconveniences like congestion in vehicle lanes, crowds on sidewalks, and delays in the subway.

The new level of flexibility removes the necessity for designing static streets for the lowest common denominator, enabling urban designers to reclaim street space for other activities.

Tomorrow, the street frees up many of these resources by coordinating its own management. It communicates its real-time maintenance needs directly to the relevant department in the City, like when bins must be emptied, and it requests help from residents with smaller tasks, like reporting paving ruptures and watering plants. In fact, this kind of collaboration already takes place in some parts of the country, but the future street makes the process much more seamless by imbedding it in the physical environment.

The smart co-management in turn frees up resources in the City that are put towards other types of engagements with the citizens, while building on people’s sense of belonging by giving them curatorship of the public realm. Besides basic maintenance coordination, the street has the capability of prioritizing between different modes of transportation based on complex algorithms of need, time, purpose, vulnerability, etc., with the overall goal of always securing safe and sensible co-mingling between its users. The new level of flexibility removes the necessity for designing static streets for the lowest common denominator, enabling urban designers to reclaim street space for other activities.

How can the future street ensure a better use of the civic assets? Caption: an Open Streets event in San Francisco, California.

Distribution of space and assets — the open street

Today, one often gets the impression that everywhere in the city is cramped, or unavailable, or off limits, even though in reality there is plenty of space to go around. It can be impossible to get a spot at that hip new sidewalk café, not because they do not want you there, but because there is simply not space to put more tables and chairs on the sidewalk. Community events, like hosting block parties, can be a nightmare to plan, unless they are instigated so far in advance that there is time to get all the permits in order. Or let’s say you would like to have a birthday party in the pocket park along the street, but because you cannot be sure that the benches in the park will be available, you decide to stay indoors. In these examples, the results are that the café loses out on potential business, communities lose out on a chance to grow, and people lose out on the opportunity to live a healthy outdoor lifestyle. But it is not just the people in question who are disadvantaged. In fact, we all constantly lose out on the many small opportunities for additional public life, which is an integral part of living together as human beings, and which make the streets lively and safe places to be for all of us.

Tomorrow, the street fluently, effortlessly and automatically unlocks civic assets to accommodate a wider variety of activities. It has no static restrictions for where different activities can take place when, acknowledging the true fluidity of urban life. The street easily accommodates both planned and spontaneous happenings by enabling its users to request permissions and permits in real-time within the environment. It manages the distribution of this space based on learned patterns of usage, real-time user needs, and with input from any affiliated citizens. This creates a public realm that is responsive to, and capable of supporting, all types of public life. The open street even encourages its citizens to make the most of underused nooks and stagnant hours of the day by advertising its own availability: “Hey, passersby. They are planning to shut me down next week for maintenance on the next block over — wanna organize a street soccer game?”

Will the future streets make it easier to be a child in traffic or to walk with a stroller? Caption: an intersection in Greenwich Village, New York.

Social inclusion and access — the everyman’s street

Today, streets often end up constituting the physical and cultural barriers that prevent social mixing across neighborhoods, despite their historical significance as serving the exact opposite purpose. What hinders the inclusiveness of our streets today is a mixture of failed space allocation, limited transportation options, and poorly designed urban environments.

For example, on streets where only one mode of transport is prioritized, everyone that does not have access to that kind of transportation is essentially “uninvited”. The car is a prime example, of course, but even public transportation can exclude certain users, who might not be able to afford the fare, or who simply do not work or live in proximity to a station. Walking and cycling are the simplest and cheapest means of getting around, and therefore arguably the most inclusive, but not necessarily for the elderly, for children, or for people with any kind of walking impairment. To these users, a simple curb or a small pavement rupture can seem like an unsurmountable obstacle, preventing them from using the street fully, if at all. Streets with singular purposes are detrimental to the creation of a coherent urban fabric, promoting inequality and disrupting communities instead.

Tomorrow, the street actively accommodates all its daily users, both those passing through (whatever their mode of transport) and those spending time. The future street incorporates all types of mobility, and it offers ample opportunities to comfortably switch between any transport modes; you start out on your bike, until a rainfall makes you jump on the light-rail, only to jump off again and continue on your bike after the shower these types of switches are encouraged.

Overall, the goal of the everyman’s street is to ensure all have equal opportunities to get around their daily lives, without ever compromising the function of the street as a space to also spend time. In terms of accessibility, the street quite naturally eliminates many of today’s physical impediments that challenge anyone with a walking impairment or a stroller, like curbs, parking meters, signage, etc., simply because it does not need them anymore. All this type of communication will be distributed ubiquitously to the computers within any motorized vehicle that happens to pass through. Aggregations of data help urban designers guarantee that there always is a bench on the street next to the hospital, a safe crosswalk by the school, or a late-night bus service to the student quarters, always customizing comfort and convenience to each street’s unique context.

How can the future streets be both sustainable and give people better quality of life? Caption: Washington Square Park, New York.

Sustainability and resilience — the strong street

Today, the world’s major cities are not always known as bastions of good health; their streets can be noisy, polluted, and just plain stressful, all contributing factors to the development of certain lifestyle diseases and psychological challenges. Additionally, streets are faced with the urgent challenge of reducing their negative impact on the environment, while preparing for the damages of a changing climate that will affect them both slowly over time and in shocks of extreme weather phenomena. The challenge of building and managing an overall healthy and resilient street (for people and nature alike) has never been more complicated, and the price of retrofitting our existing infrastructure never costlier.

The best locations for different types of plants and trees, that have both environmental and psychological benefits, are determined by an automatic analysis of existing biodiversity, earth quality, histories of bio-epidemics, and user input.

Tomorrow, the street guarantees its own sustainability and resilience, always with the citizens wellbeing in mind. While many cities are already experimenting with new types of sustainable streets, technology will simplify the process of deciding which elements go where, of finding space for them, and of managing and monitoring the ever-changing risks. The street anticipates oncoming challenges and can prepare itself, or it asks locals for help with preparations mitigating problematic solutions. The best locations for different types of plants and trees, that have both environmental and psychological benefits, are determined by an automatic analysis of existing biodiversity, earth quality, histories of bio-epidemics, and user input. On a day to day basis, the strong street keeps a record of how it performs, ensuring that no neighborhood is ever deprived of a healthy, sustainable, or resilient environment.

How can the street’s edges create a strong support for a thriving street? Caption: East Village, New York.

Street edges and buildings — the supported street

Today, as well as tomorrow, the fact is that a street is not very likely to succeed without “good edges”, no matter how well considered its layout, use, inventory, or standard of maintenance. An active edge — open ground floor functions, a high level of transparency, frequent scale and texture changes — provides crucial support to ensure the liveliness of the street itself. Even the best designed streetscape will never truly thrive if it is surrounded by blank facades. Still, many buildings have been designed to turn their backs on the public life, or they are pulled back from the sidewalk to make space for parking. Many cities also face the challenge of smaller shops having a hard time competing with online shopping, or with certain mono-functional areas being unable to support a mixed retail base. The results are dead streets, with few pedestrians and even fewer people staying — the public realm, however well-designed, becomes essentially uninviting.

Tomorrow, the street is actively supported by its surrounding environment. It thinks beyond its own boundaries and into the surrounding spaces in the buildings, acknowledging the already existing experiential overlap between the two. Technological opportunities are leveraged to ensure better management of the ground floors, creating consistent activity along the street’s edges, so that even if the street from time to time is empty (like late at night or during a storm), a sole pedestrian will still feel in the presence of others, i.e., not alone or unsafe. The edges of the streets are managed with a high level of flexibility that matches the changeability of the city itself. Shop owners have an easy way of testing out different locations before settling in permanently (a practice currently known as the pop-up shop), and start-ups, community groups, sports clubs, etc., find cheap and available space exactly when and where they need it, without the worry of funding private facilities longterm. The street’s edges also absorb much of the clutter that currently occupy the sidewalk space, including digital screens for way-finding, USB charging ports, water fountains and of course a good portion of the sensors that will be needed to keep the digital street running on data. As such, the edge is one of the most important components of the future street, blurring the boundaries between public and private, and establishing the best possible framework for a vibrant public life.

Marrying technology and urban design/planning

The proposed principles rely heavily on intentional collaboration between technologists and designers. For the street to be able to self-coordinate its more practical management aspects, the physical urban environment must take a shape that supports the technology in its endeavor — not every type of tree lends itself to the differing watering habits of its citizen caretakers, and not every type of infrastructure allows for the wide set of flexible uses that the technology enables.

One way to create a better foundation for integration of the two sectors could be to consider the public realm less like a static, permanent installation and more like a highly-flexible puzzle: If the street was put together by a series of different pieces in various formations, then changes could be implemented more easily and without the need for extensive construction work. For example, if the tech-enhanced environment identified the need for an extra bench on one stretch of street along with the abundance of benches on another, the two puzzle pieces could simply be switched around to optimize the overall layout. If the situation later changed, then another switch could easily be made. This could also happen if a local design group wanted to test a new urban furniture piece in real life, or if a community event changed the street s needs for trash disposal for a day or even just a couple of hours.

One way to create a better foundation for integration of technology and design could be to consider the public realm less like a static, permanent installation and more like a highly-flexible puzzle.

Increased flexibility, paired with a system that keeps track of delivering the basic necessities, ultimately enables the urban realm to better keep up with the ever-changing patterns of the urban dwellers, delivering the outlined principles by the highest degree of overlapping solutions.

Where do we go from here? Caption: Californian Highway

Where do we go from here?

The future street still relies heavily on the minds and skills of people, who will be charged with the responsibility of studying the data and subsequently conducting meaningful design and technology strategies that go beyond the capabilities of pure computation. Urban planners, architects and designers have a responsibility to educate themselves on the advantages and possibilities of re-integrating technology into their sector, and technologists have a responsibility to look beyond the math, to truly understand the social impact of their algorithms. Will the future keep the noises of the children playing, while eliminating car honks and engine roars? Will we still smell freshly baked pastries, but be rid of garbage stenches? Will we expand our opportunities to assemble, to meet, to play, to be citizens and stewards of public space?

We hope that we are moving towards a future that is truly as dynamic as technology allows, including for the built environment, while being inherently rooted in the one common goal: creating cities for people.