Journey down the wet road

Lincoln Road. Rodeo Drive. The Champs-Élysées. The world’s most famous roads are memorable for a variety of reasons, but they all have one thing in common–good design.

When a road has been well designed, it becomes more than just a thoroughfare.  

It becomes a place where people enjoy spending time. Conversely, a bad design creates a soulless space where nobody wishes to linger.

It can be hard to define exactly what gives a street its character. Often it is simply a feeling, but one that is instantly identifiable as either positive or negative. Think of an empty street during daylight hours, when the residents are at work and there are few people about. A pleasant street, lined with well-kept gardens and shady trees, feels calm and tranquil. In contrast, a wide, bare expanse with no landscaping feels silent and deserted.

Mothers with small children or those at home during the day are unlikely to spend more time on the street than a quick dash from the house to air-conditioned car. When older kids come back from school and the commuters return home, which of these two streets would be a more appealing place to ride a bike, walk the dog or go for a jog?

While the average person’s reaction may be instinctive, urban planners have spent years studying exactly what creates a beautiful street – its proportions, its natural features, its architectural style – to understand how its design contributes to its success.

In Cayman, much has been said about the lack of sidewalks and poor road design across much of the island. However, there are some notable exceptions. Strolling along the shady sidewalks at Camana Bay or Cricket Square is a joy compared to the hazards of traversing stretches of West Bay Road under the relentless glare of the sun.

Hopefully, future developers will incorporate landscaping and sidewalks at the master planning stage so that taking a walk in our tropical climate becomes a pleasure rather than hardship to be endured.

While the problems associated with our roads are well known, little is said about the status of our canals.

The same principles of design that apply to roads also apply to canals–our “wet roads.” Think of Venice, Amsterdam or Miami, where canals are integral to the city’s transportation network, yet also attract tourists keen to admire their beauty.

In an island environment, where there is a multitude of boats and watercraft, why has so little attention been given to the design of our canals? Built in straight lines, often stagnating in a dead end, with blank concrete seawalls on either side, hundreds of miles of canals have been constructed with little thought to the end experience. The intention is to raise real estate values by creating waterfront lots, but at what cost?

The environmental impact of dredging canals has been a hot topic in recent years, but there are ways to mitigate the impact. Firstly, by ensuring proper water flow and, secondly, by considering how the canals interact with the land. Both steps can help protect the marine life whose natural habitat is otherwise threatened.

Numerical modelling systems calculate the optimal flow of tidal water in order to increase the percentage of oxygen in water for aquatic and sub-aquatic wildlife to thrive. In a man-made environment, this requires careful engineering to ensure that water is channelled efficiently. Tidal activity, climate and local geological conditions all need to be taken into account.

At Camana Bay, the canal design incorporated this technology and was successful in creating the right conditions for the fish and other sea creatures that now happily swim in the town’s waterways.

The second step applies to both developers and home owners, as waterfront gardens are to boat-owners what front gardens are to pedestrians passing on the street: the public face of the home.

Attractive, beautifully landscaped and well-maintained gardens make an essential contribution to the appeal of a neighbourhood. And this is where the value of canal design lies for those interested in real estate prices.

By softening the relationship between land and water, with the use of plenty of vegetation and by avoiding straight lines, it is possible to closely emulate the natural environment. Mangroves, which are indigenous to Cayman and are vital to the islands’ ecosystem, are routinely removed from canal lots, when in fact they could be incorporated into the design.

It would be better to preserve these valuable plants and make them a focal point of the landscape. Imagine how magical it would be to kayak around the bottom of your garden and see much of the wildlife you would expect to find in an area of undeveloped coast.

A dock can also be more than just a functional space to keep a boat; it can be an extension of a home’s living space. Landscaping, outdoor furniture and subtle lighting can transform a dock into a private retreat or an enchanting place to entertain guests.

The old adage that the journey is as important as the destination is more significant to boaters than to road users. Therefore, we should aim to make the wet roads they travel memorable for all the right reasons.