Ben Hamilton-Baillie is a fan of common sense. The former architect and founder of Bristol-based traffic consultancy Hamilton-Baillie Associates is a leading advocate for shared space, the urban design movement that proposes that human judgment—not conventional traffic control—should govern our streets. Makeshift asked him about the upside of chaos, the logic of skating rinks, and the incivility of traffic lights.
Makeshift: What is shared space?
BH: Shared space is an approach to thinking about streets and movement that questions the conventional segregation of human activity from traffic—and the language of underpasses, barriers, stoplights, and signals.
What does shared space look like?
The best known example in London—in addition to Seven Dials in Covent Garden—may be Exhibition Road in Kensington, which has been designed specifically to link together the rich mix of museums and institutions that line the street. There are no traffic signals or separated sidewalks on Exhibition Road.
Is shared space basically about destroying signals and curbs?
Shared space is about more than just removing signs and markings. It has to do with whether we accept drivers as citizens or exclude them from civic life. The downside of excluding drivers from social life is that you get anti-social behavior.
Where does the idea of shared space come from?
The Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman had a remarkable career in rethinking how to combine simplicity in street design with low-speed environments where traffic and other activities can mix. Monderman discovered that all sorts of benefits arise from removing the paraphernalia of highway engineering.
Still, it sounds like a tough sell.
Getting rid of signage is often quite popular. Getting rid of certainty can be more difficult. You create a degree of ambiguity and intrigue that changes the driver’s relationship to his or her surroundings. But you also initiate a transfer of control from the State—who does your thinking for you at a traffic signal—to individuals or the community who make decisions and interact in ways that state control doesn’t allow.
And human behavior should inform policy and the built environment—not the other way around…
Exactly. The UK Department for Transport has a nice phrase, “Working with the grain of human behavior,” rather than imposing an order that is contrary to the way we wish to move or go about our lives.
Still, shouldn’t we be worried that the removal of signs will create chaos?
That depends on how you define chaos. A degree of chaos can help avoid the certainty that promotes high speeds. Take the analogy of an ice rink. If you presented it as a theoretical model, people would say, “This is chaos! People sliding around on steel blades on ice!” But if you observe an ice rink, all sorts of patterns and social protocols emerge from the spontaneous interaction of strangers.
Why is shared space getting attention now?
The movement comes as governments are stepping back from management of streets and public spaces because they lack resources. We’re also learning more about behavioral psychology; human beings are remarkably good at adapting to their environments. Shared space exploits that ability.
Does rapid urbanization make shared space a timely theory?
Yes. Shared space is moving the mundane world of highway engineering toward an understanding of what makes for economic vitality and civility. And it’s civility that makes towns, of course.