Advice for Highway Engineers and Designers

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Why designing our streets and public spaces matters

We see making public places accessible, safe, economically vibrant, attractive for use and easy to get around as vital ingredients of conserving our heritage. If we can achieve these goals in historic places we’ll help them to thrive both as places we use and as unique destinations.

The historic environment is not all buildings and monuments. The spaces in between them have a visual and physical impact on historic places and how we value and use them. Highways and footpaths are often older than surrounding buildings; their line, construction materials and furniture can all be important to the sense of history of a place.

Since the introduction of conservation areas in the 1960s we’ve made great progress in designing highways and the public realm more sensitively. Despite this, even in some of the most historic and frequently visited cities in the country, there are plenty of places where past works have left obtrusive methods that restrict pedestrians and allow motor vehicles to dominate our environment. There are still many opportunities to improve the experience of visitors and regenerate local economies.

A selection of street signs clustered together, some permanent, some temporary and one amended with grey spraypaint concealing a word. Busy pedestrians including children are hurrying along the pavements beneath.
Additions to signage over time can result in a legacy of clutter and confusion to users © Historic England

What good design entails

Our historic streets contribute to our appreciation and enjoyment of historic places. Good quality and appropriate design will have a lasting, positive impact on the local area for the people who use it every day:

  • Measures such as changing road layouts, traffic calming, pedestrianisation, enhancing access and mobility in public spaces can all have an impact on the surrounding historic environment.
  • Good design makes streets accessible to all while maintaining local character.
  • Street surfacing is an integral part of the appearance of an area and how it’s used. It’s important to reinstate groundworks sympathetically and to conserve areas of locally distinctive surfacing.
  • Road markings, such as yellow lines or parking-bay markings aren’t always really necessary. They can be marked in other ways.
  • Signs and barriers are sometimes needed for safety. But they can be kept to a minimum and positioned thoughtfully to avoid clutter and obstruction. Studies have shown that many items of street furniture are unnecessary.
  • Bollards and bus shelters, even drain covers and paving may be of historic significance. You may need to find out what the rarity and importance of these features and structures is before removing or altering them.
  • Kerbs play an important role in helping people navigate and understand the use of space. Whilst level surfaces may improve accessibility in pedestrianized areas, we advocate close working with disabled access groups to determine where kerbs are necessary for safety and navigation. 
  • Digging trenches may remove or expose buried archaeology. Where possible, find out what you might encounter before works start.
People enjoying the sunshine seated in a cafe's outside dining area in Boston's market place
Refurbishment of Boston's market place has created new opportunities for businesses in the town centre © Historic England

Support for highway engineers and designers

Historic England recognise that engineers and designers have to balance many demands. It takes careful planning to ensure works don’t detract from the experiences of people using historic streets. Poorly thought out schemes can cause lasting harm to the value of heritage assets for this and future generations.

Our advice, set out in Streets for All will help designers consider how the historic environment should be taken into consideration in proposals. The process it guides you through considers:

  • What makes a place historic?
  • What features of it are important to the sense and experience of history and should be conserved?
  • What could be improved?
  • How should new work be designed sensitively?

There are some simple design principles that help to make sure that the street scape complements rather than detracts from surrounding buildings, spaces and monuments. For example:

  • Reduce clutter
  • Co-ordinate street furniture
  • Reinforcing local character
Crossroads in a pedestrianised area viewed from above shows pedestrians going about their business and the varied stone finishes of the streets and pavements.
This attractive street design in Stockport emphasises the junction of historic lanes and the historic lines of pavements © Historic England

Streets for All

Historic England’s Streets for All advice (updated 8 May 2018) provides practical advice and principles on many areas of public realm works for engineers, designers and planners. It gives practical advice on the management and conservation of historic streets, particularly in historic town and city centres, including design of new works.

This document should be read alongside Manual for Streets and Manual for Streets 2.

Streets for All

Published 8 May 2018

This guidance, together with the Streets for All regional documents, provides updated practical advice for anyone involved in planning and implementing highways and other public realm works in sensitive historic locations.

Where this advice can help

We haven’t defined where the advice in Streets for All should and should not be used, but there are some places and circumstances that will make it particularly pertinent:

  • In conservation areas
  • In urban areas, which are most frequently subject to improvement schemes and with the greatest demand for use of public spaces
  • Where the urban environment of a historic town or city has lost its historic character or is dominated by modern highways infrastructure. In such locations it may be most important to rediscover the connections with the past that give each of us a sense of belonging and that contribute to our understanding of a place’s history and identity

Shoppers and stalls at Kingston Market on a sunny day.
Enhancing the public realm at Kingston Market means both the space and buildings contribute to successful and distinctive town centre © Historic England

Other guidance and advice

The Department for Transport and Department of Communities and Local Government have produced guidance for those involved in the design, planning and approval of new streets and modification of existing ones. See Manual for Streets.

This manual came out after we issued the Streets for All Manuals, and endorses many of the ideas we put forward.

This was followed by Manual for Streets 2 which gives further advice and case studies on how the philosophies in Manual for Streets can be used beyond new residential streets to encompass both urban and rural situations.

Department for Transport Traffic Advisory Leaflets (TAL) also cover issues relating to the historic environment such as Historic Core Zones, which allow you to reduce signage and street lines within the zones.

See the following four case studies on Historic Core Zones:

PRIAN (Public Realm Information and Advice Network) is an independent body that has useful advice on street design.

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