The 5 Elements of Streetscaping

Vancouver sustainable photo

Photo:  Coal Harbour, Vancouver 2013 AJG

Conveniently, for those of us who still occasionally count with our fingers, there are only 5 elements to streetscaping.

If you Google the word streetscape or streetscaping hundreds of images come up showing all kinds of beautiful computer renderings of streetscape plans and designs. Look at these plans and look for the 5 elements in practically infinite variety.

The 5 elements must not be considered sequentially, but rather simultaneously as one element influences the other. The width of paving, for example, determines the space for sidewalks over buried utility conduit as well as tree planting, bike lanes, transit lanes, cafe seating etc. They may be implemented separately, for example the tree planting will be left last or even for the next budget cycle, but planning must consider all elements in unison.


Photo:  Street Festival, Penticton, B.C. 2013 AJG

Given a limited budget, the most effective expenditure of funds to improve a street would probably be on trees… trees can transform a street more easily than any other physical improvement. Moreover, for many people trees are the most important single characteristic of a good street.

Allan B. Jacobs, Professor, UC Berkeley, author Great Streets

Street trees are easily the single most important element in streetscaping. Of course they are beautiful but the economic, environmental and health related benefits are many. Trees sequester carbon, filter the air of particulates, expire oxygen, stabilize and filter water in the soil etc. etc. They provide shade and shelter to living creatures like humans and help reduce the dangers of UV radiation and skin cancer. They reduce the “urban heat island” effect caused by too much concrete and asphalt in our grey and lifeless cities and thus reduce air conditioning use, costs and emissions.

And they provide an excellent return on investment.

TD Bank estimates ” the 10 million trees that make up the City of Toronto’s urban forest are valued at over $7 billion and provide an additional $80 million of environmental benefits and cost savings each year.”  See full report below.

The Benefit of Trees (see link to Tree Canada)

Vancouver treed street

Photo:  Vancouver, BC 2013 AJG

Properties on tree lined streets retain and improve value faster than non-treed streets.

People who live on tree lined streets are healthier and happier! IMG_1095

Photo:  Romantic Road, Germany 2015 AJG

Whether in an urban, suburban or rural setting, tree lined streets enhance beauty and harmony with nature.  The above photo is from the Romantische Strasse (Romantic Road) in Germany.  This kind of streetscaping helps create tourist destinations famous throughout the world.  Thousands of tourist related jobs depend on visitors driving this extraordinary route.

In the following photographs taken in Rothenburg Germany, trees and greenery can still be applied to a very narrow streetscape.  The trees on the right, sunny southern exposure are closely pruned and tied to the neighboring houses.  The left, northerly side uses shade loving vines to add living beauty to the streetscape! IMG_0945 IMG_0946 IMG_0949 IMG_0951

Photos:  Rothenburg, Germany 2015 AJG

The above photo shows how the canopy from a park or courtyard tree may add the benefit of tree canopy while not taking any space in this very narrow street.

The following photo shows a rather dark and narrow street in Rome.  Here citizens brought greenery and natural beauty in to the streetscape with planters.  All the elements of streetscaping are still evident in this very typical Roman street. IMG_6865

Photo:  Rome 2014 AJG


Photo:  Rothesay, N.B. 2014 AJG

“Trees and utility lines are not compatible”

Gaetan Thomas, President and CEO New Brunswick Power Corporation

Tree and utility line conflict dictate that undergrounding of utility lines be mandatory in streetscaping. Ample studies show power outages are much reduced with underground utility lines. Whether caused by trees or by ice, snow and wind, utility reliability is significantly improved by undergrounding.

Halifax Economic Implications of Buried Electric Utilities


Halifax UndergroundUtilities May30.13

For some reason this key and mandatory element of streetscaping is one of the least practised by Canadian municipalities, provincial bureaucracies and provincially regulated and often publically owned utility companies and bureaucracies. Of course cost is always given as their argument against it. The fact is the cost is easily outweighed by the benefits. The problem is many bureaucratic management models do not recognize these benefits.

Underground utility lines are much more reliable than above ground utility lines however public utility companies do not consider customer loss or even safety in their cost analysis and spreadsheets. Senior citizens left in the cold, frozen pipes or non functioning elevators do not compute. Societal costs related to lost productivity, property damage, safety related to improper usage of gas generators etc. are not part of this calculation. Also increased property values, increased tax revenue, increased private sector investment in streetscaped areas with underground utility lines are also not part of the equation. River Road Rothesay

Photo:  Rothesay, NB Christmas Ice Storm 2013 AJG

American for-profit utility companies support undergrounding of utility lines and recognize the loss of electrical sales and revenue as key factors in their cost benefit analysis. Again many Canadian public owned utility companies do not seem to consider this cost in their analysis.

Advantages of Undergrounding Utilities White Paper 05-09

Canadian cities, towns and villages are some of the least streetscaped communities in the developed world. The Americans have bettered us and Europe is light years ahead of us. European visitors scratch their heads and wonder why our cities, so gloriously blessed with natural beauty especially waterfront beauty like Vancouver, Toronto, Halifax or Lunenburg so often allow utility poles to obstruct views and diminish streetscapes.

This photograph of beautiful Lunenburg, Nova Scotia’s harbour is profoundly diminished by the placement of utility lines directly in the view from a very important tourist vista. Lunenburg Utility Pole in view

Photo:  Lunenburg , NS 2012 AJG

The following photograph is of a recently developed “Big Box” commercial street showing the staggering ugliness of the utility lines and lack of tree canopy.  Halifax remains the largest city in Canada not requiring buried utility lines in new commercial and residential development. 100_1350 (2)

Photo:  Halifax, NS 2012 AJG


Photo:  Caught in the act, Halifax, NS 2012 AJG

The following two photos are of Rothesay Road, in picturesque Rothesay New Brunswick. This view of the extraordinary Kennebecasis river should be part of a nationally recognized parkway but instead is greatly diminished by the outrageous utility lines.  The houses are on the right side or land side of the street yet the utility company placed their poles on the opposite side (waterfront) side of the street.  The obvious streetscape solution here is to bury the utility lines under a sidewalk on the right side of the street, and build an at-grade boardwalk on the water side of this extraordinary parkway.  Trees in this case should be kept to a minimum in order to maintain the spectacular views, and instead use low shrubs. IMG_1250 IMG_1253

Photos:  Rothesay, NB 2015 AJG

In this case, lighting should be provided by heritage lamp posts consistent with the heritage lighting on the Rothesay Commons heritage area and Rockwood park.  Low ground-level lighting can be provided on the water side boardwalk. Confederation Parkway (2)

Photo:  Rockwood Park, Saint John, NB 2014 AJG

Thankfully Rothesay requires undergrounding of utility lines in all its current and future developments.  The challenge facing many Canadian municipalities is how to pay to underground legacy utility lines.

Roth 7

Photo:  Highland Ave., Rothesay 2014, AJG

Fortunately Montreal started undergrounding utility lines in the 1930s.IMG_6828

Photo:  University Ave. Montreal 2014 AJG

undergroud conduit_universite_et_sainte_catherine_tgp

Photo: Undergrounding utility lines, St. Catherine St circa 1930, Ville de Montreal

Vancouver started planting street trees and greening its formally bland and grey streetscapes in the 1970s. Today it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world in part due to its green tree lined streetscapes. Vancouver Streetscape

Photo:  Vancouver 2013 AJG

Canada’s largest and wealthiest city Toronto, however, has been the biggest laggard always playing the cheap card and citing cost as opposed to playing the value card. Queen Street Toronto 2014

Photo:  Queen St., Toronto 2014 AJG

Queen's Park Toronto 2014

Photo:  Queen’s Park, Toronto 2014 AJG

“It’s hard to get Toronto to look like Chicago, because Chicago has all the power lines buried.”

Sandra Kybartas, production designer for Due South, in MacLeans interview with Brian Johnson, page 72, February 27, 2012 Chicago various plantings in strip

Photo:  Chicago, 2005 AJG

City Hall Toronto 2014

Photo:  Toronto City Hall, 2014 AJG

Fortunately there has been a change in official Toronto. Bland, mediocre, lowest common denominator bureaucratic thinking has been replaced with visionary, design- excellence thinking. Torontonians and Canadians will benefit for generations to come from this extraordinary renewal.  Waterfront Toronto is leading a fantastic design excellence based renaissance and creating of one of the world’s great waterfronts!

To the Waterfront, published to YouTube Nov 5, 2014 by Waterfront Toronto

Queen's Quay New Street Car Queen's Quay Bike Path

Photos:  Queen’s Quay Streetscape, Waterfront Toronto

Costs for undergrounding utility lines can be minimized if undergrounding occurs at same time as street reconstruction and renewal. As municipalities renew and repair aging underground infrastructure like sewerage and water lines, this provides an excellent opportunity to underground and update aging electrical and telecommunications systems. Prince William Underground Conduit

Photo: Saint John, NB 2014 AJG


Photo:  Garrison Crossing, Chilliwack B.C. 2013 AJG

A street’s makeup, dimensions and indeed purpose is the overarching factor to be considered. While the five elements of streetscaping must be included and considered simultaneously, the first step of streetscaping is a complete needs analysis and stakeholder consultation. Then, of course, comes budget planning and sourcing funds. Funds include various federal, provincial and municipal infrastructure programs, local business improvement taxes and levies, and even private sources of funding for commemorative tree planting and furnishings as well as donations toward sidewalks and boardwalks. Also there are several corporate and NGO funding programs available.  Some examples of these are given in element 5, Fixtures and Furniture .

Extensive stakeholder consultation is key to efficient and appropriate planning. Simply developing a streetscape plan and not including all stakeholders, most importantly the public, leads to landowner and citizen alienation, controversy and usually non optimum decision making.

Key stakeholders are traffic officials with their traffic studies and analysis, parking officials with their needs assessments, transit officials with their analysis, needs, coordination and budget, utility officials like water, sewerage, electrical and telecommunications with their needs and engineering expertise, recreation officials with their needs and analysis, land owners and users with their key needs and concerns, and finally the general public who in the final analysis foot the bill. The process needs to be open, transparent and encouraging of public input.

The concept of “Complete Streets” has become widespread.  Its principles are also integral to creating great streetscapes.

“A Complete Street is designed for all ages, abilities, and modes of travel. On Complete Streets, safe and comfortable access for pedestrians, bicycles, transit users and the mobility-impaired is not an afterthought, but an integral planning feature.”

From “Complete Streets For Canada”  See attached link:

Once all these needs are assessed and determined, the preliminary planning can proceed deciding widths and dimensions based upon the available right-of-way. Streetscapes are infinite in their variety and complexity. Of course, budget will help to set limitations on the infinite choices available.

As part of “Complete Streets” cycle lanes have become one of the key components of streetscape design. Sustainable cities encourage cycling with bike lanes, storage solutions and rental programs.

Video: Published to YouTube July 10, 2013 by TCAT Toronto Centre for Active Transportation

The following photo from Montreal shows a dedicated bike lane protected from traffic by curbs and the parking lane.


Photo:  Montreal 2015 AJG

The following photo shows a rather innovative bike lane integrated with the sidewalk. IMG_9666

Photo:  Cologne, Germany 2015 AJG

The following is an even easier and less expensive solution.  The bike path is in red.


Photo:  Cologne, Germany 2015 AJG

Street surface materials are also varied. In Canada we tend to focus on asphalt surfaces for the driving lanes and this has served us well. Many European cities continue to build with cobblestone driving surfaces, but this application is certainly not necessary to create a world class streetscape.

Many Canadian cities are once again considering light rail streetcars. Toronto has always kept streetcars as an integral part of its transit solution and Montreal is now considering reintroducing electrically powered streetcars and trolley buses. Vancouver has also maintained its fleet of electrically powered trolley buses. With Canada’s very clean and low carbon electrical grid provided by vast sources of hydro and nuclear and growing wind, solar and geothermal, this seems to be an important part of our low carbon sustainable urban future.

STM Electrification of surface system published to YouTube August 14, 2013

Medians, planting strips and sidewalk widths which may include cafe spaces are also to be considered.


Garrison Crossing, Chilliwack B.C. 2013 AJG


Photo:  Cologne, Germany 2015 AJG

Curbs and sidewalks are again infinite in their possible variety.  They are also the only element of streetscaping that is optional.

New sustainability designs actually suggest eliminating traditional curb and gutter installations in low density, low traffic volume settings and instead use swales, or bio-swales. Traditional curb and gutter storm drain systems direct all rain water from paved surfaces directly into storm sewers and then into rivers and waterways. In older integrated sewerage systems it directs all rain water into the sanitary system sometimes leading to flood overflows and rather unpleasant situations. By eliminating curbs and instead creating grassed swales or planted swales ordinary rain water is dispersed into the ground where it is filtered through the soil contributing to aquifers as well as providing water for street trees. Storm sewer drains are placed in the swales in order to direct heavy rains and floods away from the community. This technique is also less expensive and can help defray other streetscaping costs in new residential or commercial developments. Higher density areas will still need curbs and storm drains as there is less room for water dispersal.

In the following photo of a lower density single family residential neighbourhood, a very beautiful streetscape was created by planting trees and installing a poured concrete sidewalk on the right of the planting strip.  Rather than using curbs, storm drains were placed in the treed swales. Rothesay Autumn Trees

Photo:  Campbell Drive, Rothesay, NB 2013 AJG

The type of curbing and sidewalk materials is of course directly related to overall budget. This in turn is related to the historical status of the street, as in a Heritage Streetscape, or perhaps a premium commercial development for example. Prince William Granite Curbs

Photo: Prince William St. Saint John, NB 2014 AJG

Granite curbs are more expensive to be sure but also extremely durable. Granite curbing is often used in Heritage Streetscapes, whereas concrete curbing is fine in all other streetscapes. Again, premium commercial districts may justify the additional expense for granite.

The concept of “integrated streets” or “shared streets” is gaining momentum.  This concept utilizes low profile curbing to reduce barriers between sidewalks, cycle lanes and street surfaces.  This allows flexible street usage, easy pedestrianization, and provides necessary traffic calming as cars must slow down to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists.  This is limited to lower traffic streets and lanes.


Photo: Low Profile Curbing, Rothenburg, Germany 2015 AJG

Sidewalk material choices are practically infinite. Pea gravel is probably one of the least expensive, followed by asphalt, poured concrete, concrete interlocking brick, traditional brick and granite. The new two coloured granite maple leaf motif design of the spectacular newly recreated Queen’s Quay in Toronto would certainly be considered premium!

Queen's Quay Granite

Photo:  Queen’s Quay Construction, West 8


Photo:  Munich, Germany 2015 AJG

The above photo taken in Munich shows one of the least expensive sidewalk materials, compressed pea gravel.  This very wide area was also used as an integrated bike path.

The following photo shows the use of a poured in place rubber play surface in a waterfront, boardwalk sidewalk application. 319

Photo:  Penticton, B.C. 2013 AJG

The following is an at-grade boardwalk-sidewalk.  This can also be at curb grade.  Boardwalks can use recycled lumber or utility poles.   Pedestrians enjoy walking on boardwalks as they are easier on their backs and legs.  They are also permeable allowing rain water to flow through into the soil.

Boardwalk Sidewalk Charlottetown

Photo:  Charlottetown, PEI 2014 AJG

Another interesting sidewalk application is the use of heated sidewalks.  This has been used successfully in Scandinavia.

Heated Sidwalk

5.  FIXTURES AND FURNISHINGS Vancouver Gastown street

Photo:  Gastown, Vancouver 2013 AJG


Photo:  Penticton, B.C. 2013 AJG

One of the most exciting recent developments in streetscaping and urban design is the technological revolution unfolding related to Smart City technologies. While utility company cost savings and reliability benefits related to installing Smart electrical grids helps justify the costs of undergrounding utility lines, the new service opportunities related to Wi-Fi service provision, Smart Parking systems, Smart municipal monitoring systems, enhanced security systems etc. help defray the costs related to other streetscape fixtures like lamp posts, garbage systems etc. As we create more sustainable and intelligent cities, we can also create more beautiful streetscapes and urban spaces!

The most progressive cities will be the ones who capitalize on the opportunities to partner with utility and Smart technology companies in order to create smarter and more beautiful streetscapes.

Another new technology which preserves space in public right-of-ways is underground vacuum garbage systems EG-D040608-12 Innergård, Sickla udde

Photo:  Envac




Photo:  Edmunston, NB 2013 AJG


Security Blocks work for seating, Berlin, Germany 2015 AJG


Dutch Dining Barge 2

Photo: Canal-front barge, Delft, Netherlands 2013 AJG



Photo:  Rothenburg, Germany 2015 AJG



Photo:  Rothenburg, Germany 2015 AJG



Photo:  Montreal 2015 AJG


Photo:  Germany 2015 AJG



Photo:  Nk’ip, Osoyoos, B.C 2013 AJG


Florida & Rothesay 2015 103


Florida & Rothesay 2015 105

Gorgeous streetscape Naples

Photos:  Naples, Florida 2015 AJG



Photo:  Munich, Germany 2015 AJG

Bloor St Pots

Photo:  Bloor St. Toronto 2014 AJG



Photo:  Kelowna, B.C 2013 AJG


Kelowna Dog water station

Photo:  Kelowna, B.C. 2013 AJG

Many streetscape costs can be shared with private sector agencies. Trees, gardens and benches can often be paid for with private ceremonial donation programs or corporate donation programs.

Vancouver Ceremonial Park Bench

Photo:  Ceremonial Bench, Vancouver 2013 AJG


Photo:  Germany 2015 AJG

Discrete and appropriate advertising can also help pay for streetscape enhancement as well as local business improvement associations funded through levies. bloor street plaque

Photo:  Bloor St. Toronto 2014 AJG


Photo:  Manhole Wurzburg, Germany 2015 AJG


Photo:  Munich, Germany 2015 AJG


The 5 Elements of Streetscaping must be considered simultaneously and early in the design process.

1.  TREES AND PLANTINGS include considerations for plant species, spacing, canopy, color, root chambers, protection as well as green storm water management plans.

2.  UNDERGROUND UTILITY LINES include considerations for joint trench design, at-grade or below grade equipment, Smart meters and fault detection, lamp posts, WI-FI, fibre capacity, Smart sensors etc.

3.  STREET DIMENSIONS AND PAVING include considerations for “Complete Street” designs for pedestrians and cyclists with widened sidewalks, cycle lanes, accessibility, traffic volumes and patterns, traffic calming measures, medians. parking requirements, transit requirements and surface materials and design.

4.  CURBS AND SIDEWALKS include considerations for sidewalk widths, cafe seating, bulb outs, dedicated or integrated cycle lanes, sidewalk materials, accessible curbing, storm drainage choices especially green storm water management utilizing planting swales, rain gardens and permeable surfaces.

5.  FIXTURES AND FURNISHINGS include considerations for lighting, Wi-Fi, Smart Sensors, seating, waste receptacles, water fountains, movable planters, way-finding and signage.

One Comment on “The 5 Elements of Streetscaping

  1. I agree with everything advocated here, however want to call out that you are way off thinking America does so much better in the realm of burying utility infrastructure than Canada. I’m baffled how many great neighborhoods here and main areas are littered by the same scene you see in Toronto. In Seattle right now, and its unreal. San Francisco (where I now live), same story. Also, Chicago does seem better in at least the dense high rise areas, where toronto even oddly there leaves seemingly random messes, but it is far from without it’s examples of the same problem with.

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