'Civilised streets' guide to shared space and shared surfaces published

A briefing designed to stimulate the debate on new street design has been published by CABE. It looks at different design approaches and at notions of street safety. It explores recent discussions on shared space and explains the many benefits of the recent change in thinking away from the car and towards the pedestrian. And it presents a common agenda for the future that is about removing the dominance of the car – creating civilised streets that work for all.

Most streets in this country are failing pedestrians, and need to become destinations again, and not simply ways of getting traffic from A to B.

Radical new thinking in urban street design may point the way forward. Civilised streets, a new report from CABE, sets out the opportunities and challenges of new design approaches. It argues that the car still dominates and our streets will only become more civilised places if the needs of pedestrians are prioritised over cars.

CABE argues that streets which are designed to give all users more freedom of movement are ultimately slower, safer and more social places. These civilised streets are places where people of all ages can walk, cycle, play, talk and shop more easily. Civilised streets explores the contentious concept of shared space, which advocates removing signs and guard rails, obliging drivers and pedestrians to become more alert to each other, which in turn leads to more responsible driving.

Shared space is one way of rescuing our streets from the car. Director of CABE Space, Sarah Gaventa, highlights New Road in Brighton as one example of how redesigning a street can reinvent it. If the country is to get more streets of such quality, local authorities, highway engineers and planners must both understand and consider shared spaces as a means of delivering more civilised streets.

Says Sarah Gaventa:

'There is a dangerous view in the UK that the sole function of streets is to get cars from A to B as quickly as possible. Dangerous, yet pervasive.

The ugly by-products of this thinking are all around us. Ring roads that cut across the historic street patterns of towns and rancid underpasses. Not to mention “safety” rails which force people into convoluted detours and which result in some of us taking much greater risks to avoid.

How curious that streets are the one public service we all have to use, all the time, yet so little thought has been given to their design. Imagine negotiating your way through a public building which had just “happened” over the years. It would feel confusing and unwelcoming, littered with instructions, signs and obstructions, the product of false starts and dead ends.

With streets, there has been a persistent - though false - equation between safety and signage. False because the motorist can apparently only deal with three pieces of information at a time yet is bombarded with dozens. The pedestrian is equally compromised, conditioned now to respond unthinkingly to the green man.

From CABE’s perspective, most streets in this country do not work. We think this is a huge problem, to which people are just starting to consider the solutions.

Sharing spaces, sharing surfaces

The latest thinking focuses on streets as shared spaces between pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles. This means pedestrians are free to cross where they choose. Right of way is deliberately unclear. All users have to think and observe. It forces drivers to be cautious and therefore they drive more carefully.

Shared surfaces, increasingly found in residential areas, take this thinking one step further. They remove the physical distinctions, like kerbs or different materials, which keep traffic in one place and the rest of us in another. They include seating and planting – they could go further, with seesaws and swings. All these are visual prompts, showing that the street belongs to people who use it for more than just driving and parking. Streets become play spaces once again instead of rat-runs.

There is still work to do to get shared space right for everyone, of course. Guide dogs are trained to stop at kerbs, so removing them can be confusing. Eye-contact between pedestrians and motorists is key, but this is obviously of little use to the visually impaired. So the design solutions of shared space need more attention.

What we most want is civilised streets. Places where the needs of people are prioritised over cars. Places rooted in an assumption that everyone will use common sense and courtesy.

What makes civilised streets?

When streets are slower and safer, they start to become more social and civilised. People are happier walking and cycling in them – helping the waistline and the environment. They are safer for children, who should be able to play in the space outside their homes. There is a more serious risk of injury from straying from the pavement in a 30mph zone than in a street deliberately designed to create uncertainty.

The street also becomes a destination in its own right. Most people find it hard to meet their neighbours: streets should be a comfortable setting for the first tentative 'hellos'. A recent Ipsos MORI survey for CABE of new housing developments found that a third of residents believed the streets were unsafe for children to walk, cycle or play in and almost half felt that their neighbours went their own way, rather than doing things together or trying to help each other.'

A new road for Brighton
Streets deserted by everyone but motorists have failed their community. But they are not beyond rescue. New Road in Brighton, once a stretch of uninviting tarmac, has been redesigned and reinvented. Now a beautiful and inviting street, it is one of the most popular places in town with a 175% increase in pedestrian activity and a 600% per cent increase in people deciding to shop or simply stop, sit and enjoy the new space.

It has become a street instead of a road, where the fastest vehicle recorded has been a bicycle (at 13 mph as it happens). Flipping the hierarchy is at the heart of its success, putting pedestrians at the top of the pyramid, vehicles at the bottom, with cyclists and public transport users in between. Flexibility is the key, cars are invited into the space but the pedestrian remains the king.

Brighton’s New Road represents a new start. The re-opening was celebrated by tango and theatre. In the end, the best thing about more civilised streets is that they generate a sense of community. It encourages us to live our lives in a different way. And what better benchmark for our country’s streets than a place where you can ask your neighbour to dance.'

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