When the Roman Empire embarked upon its road building frenzy, one has to wonder whether they paid much attention to what the eventual road design would look like? A concern for military efficiency led to the road system being highly functional, full of straight lines, easily constructed and with surfaces that would sustain during severe weather. In those heady days, when roads were built to connect small military camps thirty kilometres (one day’s march) apart, the Romans constructed over 80,000 kilometres of roadway, a staggering achievement.
However, in nearly two millennia, it’s sometimes odd to think how little our road system has developed. The bitumen beneath us is still devoted entirely to function, with little regard to the appearance or aesthetic. Travel interstate in Australia on a red-eye flight and you will hear the difference in road surface before you see it. The kitsch cobblestones of inner-city Melbourne, the UV-cracked and hastily re-tarred arterials of metropolitan Perth, or the gliding sheen of the intense white highway slabs linking the Gold Coast and Brisbane, it seems that each road system has its own unique look, sound and feel.
It’s often the small things about urban design that are overlooked. While town planners and callback radio drone on about traffic interchanges and freeways flyovers, no one ever mentions what the texture of these surfaces might be like. Indeed, the most popular Google search for pavement patterns turns up a whole range of high school geometry problems, as if solving the dilemmas of tessellation were a topic only for fourteen-year-olds, and no one any older or more serious. But drive around and you will see that the road network is, in a very real way, the fabric of our communities. I often motor up towards the national park, where I know the stretch of road is worn thin, and the rattles of my small metal cage pretending to be a car become louder. The music is often overpowered by the vibrations that let you know you’re only a foot away from a surface that would scour your skin to a pulp if you happened to fall out. Motorbike riders know well the difference between sliding on a freshly tarred new road, compared to the cheese grater gravel that many roads eventually become. Safety isn’t just limited to the consequences when falling, however. Equally important is the possibility of aquaplaning across an impermeable new slick, versus dealing with the kick up of pebbles and rocks on a dusty dry unsealed stretch. Come Saturday morning in many parts of this wide brown land, any number of two-wheeled warriors will be pondering that exact question.
But more curious even that the surfaces which kiss the rubber off our tyres is the world beneath our feet in our inner cities. The renaissance of ‘walkable’ cities has led many to consider more fully how exactly two places should be connected – through grass, wooden promenade, concrete or the dreaded AstroTurf. The New York High Line project has shown the world how can work. Blending used railway tracks, thoughtful vegetation and silicon-coated concrete surfaces, the design statement details the care and thought behind this:
First the paving system, built from linear concrete planks with open joints, specially tapered edges and seams that permit intermingling of plant life with harder materials. Less a pathway and more a combed or furrowed landscape, this intermixing creates a textural effect of immersion, strolling within rather than feeling distanced from.
Strolling within rather than feeling distanced from? You can feel the haters mocking the sentiment already. But it is essential that more urban design thinks about the micro as part of their macro planning. Everyone enters a skyscraper from the ground floor after all. On a recent trip to Oxford the cobbles prevailed, a relic from the eighteenth century, or perhaps even earlier. Peering out at bizarre angles, they had been cemented in recently, making permanent the ridiculous road surface that happily destroys tires and suspension, and requires hiking boots simply to cross the road comfortably. The joke writes itself.
There are glimpses of the future every now and then. My coffee cup is a constant reminder of the tingle of progress in this area. When the ‘Solar Freaking Roadways’ craze was at its peak, my housemate looked deep into YouTube and liked what he saw. For only fifty dollars he received a hearty mug, and a non-stop torrent of derision from his mates. Solar roadways promise so much, but the fifty dollars is long gone. It will be years at least before this technology is cheap enough to implement on a wider scale. But perhaps it heralds the beginning of a more thoughtful discussion about what is the best way to cover the earth. If you really want to transform a city, simply look at the amount of asphalt that is devoted to cars and car parking, and try to imagine another substance or another use. Bitumen and concrete trap heat, consume large quantities of carbon in their production and are devastatingly ugly. Combined with the fact that most car parks are empty for at least half the day, surely there is a better way. The innovations of future cities will hopefully not come from building ever higher, but from rethinking the long accepted ideas that have simply been made from a short-term mindset about the cheapest possible option. The world beneath our feet is a good place to start.
Urban redevelopment and renewal seems to be the flavour of the month. Every capital city in Australia is busy remodelling its waterfront, revitalising ex-industrial areas or terraforming outlying residential areas in an effort to house the ever-expanding urban population. But as the nation continually bootstraps its urban design, let’s hope they pause long enough to peer downwards and look at the patterns in the concrete and remember the small things that make up a city.