Shared spaces and smart surfacing

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“Shared space” is an urban design concept championing multipurpose public areas that are safe, walkable, human-scale and economically vibrant, in which cars, buses, bikes, commuters, shoppers, residents and flaneurs co-exist in perfect harmony. Or at least in a kind of self-organising, flocking order. It throws up some interesting ideas and stimulating puzzles, not only for landscape architects but also for the manufacturers of construction products.

Shared roads and cycle tracks

The New York City based Urban Omnibus website features a rich and detailed article, “Cycle Tracks and the Evolving American Streetscape”. It’s written by David Vega-Barachowitz, Sustainable Initiatives Program Manager at the National Association of City Transportation Officials and coordinator for its Cities for Cycling project.

In the article he charts the history of designated bike lanes. They range from early experiments like the California Cycleway, an elevated toll road built in 1900 just for bikes, through to NYC’s 2007 Ninth Avenue protected bike lane, a figurehead pilot project.

The success and importance of the Ninth Avenue scheme, Vega-Barachowitz says, is about defining streets less in terms of traffic engineering and more in terms of public space:

In 2007, when New York City constructed the city’s first protected bike lane pilot project on Ninth Avenue and transformed Times Square from a tumultuous interchange into a public commons, the city not only created a safe space for cyclists and pedestrians, they set a new precedent in the design of city streets. Cycle track projects, along with a host of bold engineering and communications strategies, have helped to revive the notion of the street as a place not solely for cars, but a front yard in which commercial and pedestrian activities may thrive.

Whereas in the past, accommodating cycle lanes might have focused on safety precautions (at best) or just maximising traffic capacity (at worst), more recent approaches have emphasised a better understanding of what drivers, cyclists and pedestrians actually do and why they do it.

In practice, for designers and specifiers, this lowers the profile of barriers, buffers and furniture, and raises the profile of surfacing materials and how they are designed, arranged, used and combined.

Shared roads and pedestrian areas

Research into pedestrian behaviour and movement in public space also feeds back into construction product design and into the specification of landscaping products and materials.

Writing in The Independent in December, Will Dean looked at issue of shared space but this time through the lens of London streets, where “all too often roads are designed for cars – pedestrians are plodding afterthoughts”.

As part of this he cites Ben Hamilton-Baillie, the shared space champion, who gives the example of people’s tendency to cross areas diagonally, to choose the quickest route from A to B, and how these “pedestrian desire lines” can be used in intelligent urban design.

Describing the West London, Exhibition Road shared space project, Will Dean points out that the same rationale and the same patterns filter through the actual materials of landscape construction, like paving and surfacing products:

Different colours and patterns to regular streets make it clear to drivers that this isn’t an ordinary road – the diagonal patterns reflect how people will cross the road … Diagonal paving tiles encourage pedestrians to drift between the institutions on the street.

Marshalls, La Linia concrete paving

And the implications of shared spaces on use of street furniture and signage are given a different spin as well:

Benches in the middle of the road and distinctive street lights. These elements do two things – they make Exhibition Road a nice place to be and inform drivers that this is a public space and not just for them.

The creative and even counterintuitive use of landscape products and materials plays a key role in responding to and influencing the behaviour of people in the built environment.

Shared roads and product selection

So the concept of shared spaces does inject some fresh thinking into construction product design. Innovation is important in making projects achievable and effective, not least when it comes to designing surfaces that are equally fit for town centre footfall or through-traffic, and instilling an awareness of other (different) inhabitants or travellers.

Charcon Commercial Landscaping, Woburn Original block paving

Interpave’s review of Manual for Streets 2 (MfS2) and Scotland’s Designing Streets policy document in the e:Pave July 2011 magazine is good at articulating what shared surfaces spaces mean in practical terms: “MfS promotes a traditional grid of streets defined by buildings to give a ‘permeable’ network, particularly for pedestrians and cyclists”.

It outlines some exemplary shared space case studies: Cheltenham High Street, Home Zones in Bristol, social housing developments in Southminster, Essex, and the Stirling Prize winning Accordia housing project in Cambridge.

The article also makes some useful product selection points, naturally with a particular focus on concrete surfacing, especially in permeable paving schemes, pedestrianised areas, transition zones, and public transport interfaces.

Essential requirements for paving materials, from Manual for Streets and other guidelines, can be summarised as follows:

  • visually attractive and able to deliver distinctive local character
  • capability for visual or tactile differentiation between distinct areas
  • durable and maintainable with reliable product supply
  • accessible to all with consistent slip and skid resistance
  • well drained to avoid standing water and compatible with SUDS
  • sustainable – in the widest sense

Show and tell

In your own projects and experience, or in your research and scrapbook-keeping, what examples have you seen of surfacing materials and landscape products being used ingeniously to create shared space?

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8 Responses to “Shared spaces and smart surfacing”

  1. Natural stone surfacing: balancing acts « ESI.info External Works Says:

    […] urban planners wrestle with the pros and cons of shared surfaces, stone paving has the potential to accommodate all kinds of footfall and traffic […]

  2. Shared Space, the evidence on accidents | Urban grit Says:

    […] Shared spaces and smart surfacing (ewtrial.wordpress.com) […]

  3. Ecobuild 2011 – External Works notes « ESI.info External Works Says:

    […] theme of sustainable communities, including consultative planning and design, development of shared spaces, green infrastructure, and the importance of play and healthy lifestyles and […]

  4. Traffic management and reinventing wheels « ESI.info External Works Says:

    […] in the middle, Manual for Streets 2 (MfS2) and the concept of shared spaces keeps both viewpoints in focus for designers and planners – and for product manufacturers and […]

  5. The Bike Show Says:

    Shared space is good if your business is selling and laying granite setts. But it’s pretty much useless without other, much more important measures to reduce the amount of motor traffic flowing through the shared space. Fancy paving won’t do that. Exhibition Road is a case in point. No reduction in throughput and cars scare away pedestrians to where the pavements used to be.

    • Stephen Bird Says:

      Appreciate the input. Does that mean strict pedestrianisation? Or are there other approaches designers and planners can take? What alternatives would have been good on Exhibition Road? Thanks again and all the best.

  6. D Y Says:

    I’d agree Exhibition Road doesn’t quite work. Visitors to V&A and Science Museum often wander in middle of road then get startled by cars coming towards them. An alternative (I haven’t seen for myself) might be the road layout used in Poynton, Cheshire. See the scheme’s YouTube videos or this review of it – http://www.urbanmovement.co.uk/2/post/2013/06/low-speed-steady-flow-in-poynton-oli-davey.html.

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