Shared Spaces and Thinking Streets

As I prepare to change continents again, to resettle in a new environment, I am too itinerant for thorough introspection and retelling tales of wandering; however, one thing that has been growing more salient in my observations and thoughts is the awareness and concern over disparate urban landscapes. The questions linger as to what layout, what urban design functions best in what setting, in what cultural proclivity, grown out of what historical traditions, superstitions, symbolic integrations of living, breathing nature and planned, constructed steel and glass? To follow Edward Soja’s notions of spatial justice, the morality of urban spaces, layout and interactions requires us to begin pondering the ethics of our material surroundings.

This has been made more apparent since I returned to Seattle. Without a car I am at the mercy of public transportation, at 2.25USD for two hours of bus travel, the two, three hours between home and work that many must commit, round trips upwards of 4 hours a day, deprive time for creative and individual pursuits, take time away from families or time away from healthy eating, etc. Battling the cars that won’t stop, even in the rain, for pedestrians to cross or cyclists to peddle on their way, there is a certain sour taste to such arrangements in Seattle, indeed in most of this country, around the urban planning, use and integration of public space that has just not been so apparent in other places. These issues of public space require both a moral and material solution.

Recently I stumbled, in much the way in which I have stumbled into cafes, restaurants and alleys, into a wonderful little broadcast (link at bottom) by the BBC on Shared Spaces. The BBC’s Angela Saini begins…

“The streets beneath our feet are getting smart. Pavements are melting into the roads and traffic lights are disappearing. Inspired by the work of scientists and engineers in Holland and Japan, this is a revolution in urban design. Part of it is a movement known as ‘Shared Space’, which promises to dramatically change the way cities look and how we experience them.”

What are Shared Spaces? The Project for Public Spaces explains:

“Shared Space is more a way of thinking than it is a design concept.   It is most readily recognized as a street space where all traffic control devices such as signals and stop signs, all markings such as crosswalks, and all signing have been removed.  Curbing is removed to blur the lines between sidewalks and motorized travel way.  The philosophy is that absence of all of those features forces all users of the space — from pedestrians to drivers — to negotiate passage through the space via eye contact and person to person negotiation.

This is all premised on the idea that traditional streets allocate distinct spaces to the different modes, and in doing so create a false sense of security to each user leading them to behave as if they have no responsibility to look out for other users in “their” space.  This obviously works best for operators of motor vehicles, who are sitting within the protection of a ton and a half of steel.”

Shared Spaces evolve from the avant garde ideas of Dutch urban engineer Hans Monderman‘s observations that many traffic signs: ‘beware of cow,’ carry not the signification of their text but the deeper signification of ‘the driver is an idiot.’ It may well be the case that when the roads are plastered with warning signs and cars and pedestrians observe only flashing lights and immutable signs they lose track of one another and pay less attention to the phenomenon at hand than the mirror warnings that plague their visual field. Remove the barriers to engagement with one another, return a personal trust and responsibility to the road and urban space user, encourages the theory behind Shared Spaces and Living, Thinking Streets.

“Today, Monderman’s vision can be experienced throughout his Dutch province of Friesland, no where more so than in Drachten, an unassuming town that until recently was famous only for being the home of the Dutch electronics giant Philips. As Angela discovers for herself, Drachten’s shared space schemes (and those of its near neighbours) now attracts a regular pilgrimage of engineers and planners, from all parts of the world, eager to experience this new urban vision.”

As a theory for more than just better traffic engineering and urban design the ethics behind Shared Spaces has resonant social implications. It leads to questions on the nature of the self and community, surely whether implemented in a deeply liberal individualist or moral communitarian setting the project would be met with different results. What does it tell us about economic situations, private car ownership to public transportation, to bicycles etc.? Urban sprawl complicates matters as much do ideological prejudices that foster fear or hatred of the Other. It returns to Soja’s Spatial Justice and encourages the planner and space user alike to take stock of moral and community standing. Or, as the Project for Public Places notes, Shared Space is not a transportation concept, it is a political concept. It is social and scientific and we must think more about how places are created and maintained.

For further thought provocation the BBC has more at THINKING STREETS.

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About michaelcaster
Michael Caster is a human rights advocate, researcher and civil society consultant. He holds an MA in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and an MA in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from Utrecht University. He has worked in China, Thailand, Myanmar, Turkey, and Tunisia.

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