On the sharing of space

by robertmcnicol

Hi both. There’s a trend in transport planning towards something called “shared space”. As you know, I’m no expert in traffic design and transport infrastructure, and I have a lot of respect for people working in that field. And I think we in the planning/streetscape/regen/urban renewal/urban design business need to take some of the flak for the criticisms I’m about to set out, for reasons that will hopefully become clear.

Hans Monderman is generally seen as the guru for shared space thinking. This was a man with a great breadth of experience and expertise, and I’m sure that his work in the Netherlands is exemplary. But the way it’s been implemented in this country seems to be the stuff of muddle and fad, the appropriation of “radical” design for the sake of leveraging funds and garnering awards.

Shared space, as it has become to be understood in the UK, involves the removal of the traditional demarcations between different road users to create (ideally) a single continuous road surface without signs, bollards, pavements, signals, barriers or symbols. By so doing, all users of the road are treated as sentient beings with decision-making abilities that are empowered to make judgements about safe use (primarily) and enjoyment and efficiency and so forth. This is a form of anarchy (please don’t think I mean that in any way pejoratively), where behaviour dictates the rules of the road rather than the other way around.

I have had experience of only two of these such schemes: New Road in Brighton and Exhibition Road in South Kensington.

New Road, Brighton

New Road was built at the behest of the Prince Regent, as he was fed up with carriages whizzing past his front door. It’s part of the central cultural area of the city, with the Theatre Royal half way along its length and the Dome complex at the top. On the east of the road are the Pavilion Gardens. The shareification of the road happened in 2007, and it’s safe to say that it’s a vastly improved space. The road surface was paved with pricey-looking stone, benches were installed along the Pavilion Gardens boundary with flashy lighting, pubs and cafes now spill out, buskers irritate passers-by, and it’s regularly closed to traffic for food festivals and the like.

This is all great – so what’s my complaint? Well, a clue can be found on this Wikipedia page (it is sourced, but the links don’t work): the number of car trips has reduced by 93%. Ninety three percent!! And I can attest for this – basically the only people who drive down it are taxis; everyone else gets scared. And, you know, that’s fine. I have no qualm with the road being pedestrianised (with cycles too, why not?) but why bother retaining motor vehicle access when there’s clearly no need? Why should pedestrians have the worry of being troubled by an impatient taxi man (whose passengers are on a meter) rather than having the run of the place? In this instance, the sharing of the space feels like a very New Labour fudge; we can please everybody by giving them the power and the choice. But what has actually made the space successful, the crucial part of enabling people to use the space, has not been the sharing of it but the freedom granted to pedestrians from the tyranny of the motorcar. Which is a rather old-fashioned idea.

Exhibition Road, Kensington

Exhibition Road in Kensington was built at the behest of Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria, as a grand boulevard leading to the Great Exhibition of 1851. It’s part of the cultural centre, known as Albertopolis, that houses such institutions as the Science, Natural History and V&A Museums and the beloved Albert Hall. The shareification of the space was completed in December 2011. Again we have the fancy stone paving and lack of traditional street furniture (including no bins, which seems a bit counter-productive). Instead, there’s contemporary street lamps which dominate the road and the parking bays are marked in an achingly minimalist style by steel roundels in the corners. You can see a flickr showing the before and afters here: http://www.flickr.com//photos/73419983@N05/sets/72157628939968813/show/

Really, this is a street of two halves: the bit around the tube station, with its restaurants and benches and no cars, which works very similarly to New Road and is similarly dominated by pedestrian use. Then you have to cross both Thurloe Place and Cromwell Road, which are really horrible slow-to-cross junctions if you’re on foot, and then you get to the main drag. Here they’ve basically divided the road into four. The outer quarters are traditional-ish pavements, although widened from before and designated only be some (nasty to walk on) ridged stones. Then one of the central quarters is for motorised traffic and the other is either benches or the aforementioned minimalist parking.

Again, this is all better than what was there before. Except it doesn’t really create a shared space. Yes the traffic is slower – helped no doubt by the 20 MPH signs. But there’s still a segregation, albeit cunningly disguised. There were hoardes of prommers merrily strolling down from the Albert Hall to the tube. But the steady flow of traffic still plowed down the road and everyone kept to their traditional areas. There was no festival spirit, no sense that the car drivers were anything other than “the other”, to be avoided and paid deference to. This isn’t “shared space”, where equality is restored to the street users through clever design. No one’s sharing anything; they’re keeping to their cleverly and attractively designated areas. This is clever design for clever design’s sake. Which is absolutely fine, and I’d love to see this much thinking going into more roads.

In other words, I don’t really think that shared space is what it’s called. Or if it is, then it’s not working in Exhibition or New Road. These are two vastly improved streets that are worthy of the plaudits they’ve received. But this isn’t the future. This is the spending of vast sums on culture-associated regenerationish place improvement to disguise a problem that planners have never successfully answered and have now absolved themselves of: how to deal with the motor car.