Shared space: Do we want it? Shall we plan for it?

February 17, 2015

In many cities, streets are dominated by vehicle traffic. Pedestrians and cyclists are often segregated and relegated to unappealing zones, thus hindering opportunities for urban life due to noise, pollution and safety issues. 

In a previous blog I explained how the design of public spaces can be interpreted as a physical translation of political agendas. Recently, Julia D Day [1] reminded us of how the upkeep and careful planning of streets are crucial to citizen participation and, more generally, to facilitate the expression of political ideas and hence democracy. It is important that these two points, public spaces both as a condition for and an expression of political ideas, are considered as intrinsically interwoven since they feed each other. And this is why we should pay attention to what seems to have become a new urban design paradigm: shared spaces.

In many cities, streets are dominated by vehicle traffic. Pedestrians and cyclists are often segregated and relegated to unappealing zones, thus hindering opportunities for urban life due to noise, pollution and safety issues. Such street layouts prevent people from spending more time in the public realm, meeting outside private places and experiencing urban diversity. In a way, traffic segregation contributes to self-segregation.

At the other end of the spectrum, some cities encourage ‘shared space’ experiments. Shared spaces are a recent approach to urban design whereby motor vehicle dominance and speed are sought to be reduced through ‘inclusive design’ – that is design that not only engages all street users in the different stages of development and construction but also in the final product delivered. One of the core concepts is to subtly empower non-motorised users for them to make the most of the full width of the street, including the carriageway. It implies that shared spaces challenge the idea according to which safety is improved by segregation, arguing on the contrary that the uncertainty produced by sharing the public realm increases the perception of risk and enhances interaction.

So are shared spaces the win-win solution to both our lack of public life and traffic safety issues? To which extent are shared spaces a condition for and an expression of political ideas – and is this what we want for our cities?

Let’s take a well-known example of a shared street: Exhibition Road, London [2]. Concerns have been expressed regarding its degree of design inclusiveness, in particular from visual impairment campaign groups [3]. Do we have to forget the few to please the more? You will not convince me that this isn’t political – although it (ironically) triggered a debate about public spaces and the heterogeneity of users’ needs. Furthermore, impact studies of policies using the same concept have shown that risk perception has a limited effect in time [4]. Finally, even if I appreciate the subtlety of the approach -‘give them benches and you will get public life’ – I remember finding the most striking examples of public life in unexpected, odd or highly constrained places and moments of the day. Improvised Southern Italian dancing at the corner of a busy street, a clowns’ show in front of an ice-cream shop in Mexico, and more recently, spontaneous mid-afternoon vigils [5] after the terrorist attacks in France.  None in well-ordered, clean and safe shared spaces. On the contrary – and it is in fact their ‘random’ nature that made them so exceptional.

It goes without saying that spaces that encourage interaction by taking into account different capabilities, needs and expectations are a commendable objective and are to be encouraged. But two essential elements should be borne in mind when planning for shared spaces. Firstly, one shouldn’t rely solely on the power of physical layouts or transport modes to encourage public life. Creating favourable physical conditions is one thing, but one out of many necessary. Furthermore, it is certainly not a stand-alone solution to avoid policies tackling deeper urban issues. Education and freedom of speech, amongst others, are just as important – even though it is easier said than done. Secondly, there are no ever-lasting successful spaces because urban life is also a result of the arbitrary, the accidental, the unplanned that bring life to cities.

There is no magical recipe in place making, not from shared spaces nor from any other solution. A public space is the product of choices, compromises and trade-offs, just like our cities are a reflection of more or less admitted political rationales. If I had to design a new public space, for example the upcoming Nine Elms bridge, I would certainly push for a holistic approach targeting the end users and acknowledging that pleasing everyone is a complex, and dangerous, exercise. My task would then imply distinguishing what falls under my motives for creating a shared bridge and what is realistically achievable, both from functional and political perspectives. For instance, acknowledging that what is ‘good bridge design’ for morning commuters is not necessarily good for afternoon passers-by. That putting benches in the middle of it will not necessarily improve democracy – and that an element of my bridge might end up with a completely different use that the one I intended to create. By doing all this, I would avoid the common misconception according to which shared spaces are an urban design panacea. And I would also avoid naive urban planning that, outside functional considerations, only conceive public spaces as a condition for political ideas, and not as an expression of it.

[1] http://gehlarchitects.com/blog/the-street-and-the-search-for-democracy/
[2] http://www.rbkc.gov.uk/subsites/exhibitionroad.aspx
[3] http://www.guidedogs.org.uk/supportus/campaigns/#.VNo1WfmsU9Q
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Risk_compensation
[5] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/charlie-hebdo-vigils-across-france-hundreds-of-thousands-gather-in-a-show-of-defiant-solidarity-against-the-gunmen-who-brought-murder-and-mayhem-to-paris-9963791.html