Counterintuitive Thinking: The Shared Spaces Paradigm

As performance improvement professionals, we need to develop the ability to turn conventional wisdom on its head in order to achieve breakthroughs. Yet each of us can become trapped into accepting all kinds of “standards” and “wisdom” and “common sense.”

The current paradigm for building roads in cities is to keep cars, pedestrians, and if possible bikes physically apart from one another lest chaos and carnage break loose. In this paradigm, physical separation improves safety and traffic flow as each species, driver, walker and cyclist has their own territory marked by physical barriers – curbs primarily.

The shared space paradigm, on the other hand, takes the opposite view. Safety, civility and consideration of others, as well as aesthetics, are enhanced when roads become one level surface free of divisive curbs and guard rails. Instead, cars, bikes and pedestrians move on a single curb-free surface with only discrete drainage channels and a band of rough paving for the visually impaired.

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Shared space road in Holland

This approach, pioneered by Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, turned traditional traffic thinking upside down. Monderman, who died in 2008, wanted to enhance collective awareness and social cohesion by doing away with all the signs and barriers that instruct us to obey laws and force us to behave considerately and by doing so, counter intuitively, to increase the sense of order and personal responsibility. This approach to traffic management has several elements:

1. Remove signs: The architecture of the road – not signs and signals – dictates traffic flow.

2. Install art: The height of the fountain indicates how congested the intersection is.

3. Share the spotlight: Lights illuminate not only the roadbed, but also the pedestrian areas.

4. Do it in the road: Cafes extend to the edge of the street, further emphasizing the idea of shared space.

5. See eye to eye: Right-of-way is negotiated by human interaction, rather than commonly ignored signs.

6. Eliminate curbs: Instead of a raised curb, sidewalks are denoted by texture and color.

Writes Roger Cohen on this approach: “We need more of the shared space urban idea. The nanny state, armed with technology, has gone way too far in regulating lives. People, armed with their hand-held devices, have gone way too far in their increasingly solipsistic isolation, losing awareness of what is going on around them. The state’s cameras are trained in urban spaces on people whose gazes are fixed on their little screens. This is the death of community.”

London’s Exhibition Road, the great Victorian thoroughfare that stretches half a mile from South Kensington tube station to Hyde Park in London, is an example of this thinking put to the test. In the last 18 months, it has been ripped up and remade to a new design that all but abolishes the distinction between road and pavement. Instead, there’s one continuous surface, cross-hatched dramatically in black-and-white granite. Pedestrians can wander where they like: they’ll just have to negotiate the cars and bicycles. (The Exhibition Road transformation is covered here:

A transformed section of Exhibition Road, London. The black lines on either side are not curbs but drains set flush to the road surface.

I have walked this stretch of road, both before the changes, and after the changes began. To walk this road now is to have a sense of wonderment; it is truly a pleasure to take a stroll. Perhaps the novelty will wear off, but the attention that must be paid has meant that drivers are actually paying attention to where they drive and pedestrians do not walk like zombies with smartphones cradled ahead of themselves like some sort of modern-day prayer-book.

In The Guardian, Justin McGuirk wrote

The impetus for this design came in 2003 when the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea decided that Exhibition Road wasn’t quite living up to its name. Once the main route to the Great Exhibition, held in Hyde Park in 1851, it remains perhaps London’s grandest cultural artery. Leading to the Royal Albert Hall at its northern end and bordered by the Victoria and Albert Museum on one side and the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum on the other, its various institutions collectively get more visitors a year than Venice.

Yet it had become a glorified car park, frequently choked with lines of coaches. And with the grimy dual carriageway of the Cromwell Road cutting across it, it’s no wonder that many pedestrians preferred to take the dank Victorian tunnel that runs under Exhibition Road from the tube station to the Science Museum.

Today, Exhibition Road is in the final stages of its extraordinary transformation. With a few exceptions here and there, it is now a continuous, seamless surface of what is known as “shared space” – shared, that is, by drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. And the emphasis is very much on pedestrians, who now have two-thirds of the road’s width to themselves.

This gracious scheme was designed by the architects Dixon Jones, who won the competition back in 2003, but they take no credit for the “shared space” concept. This was pioneered by the Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman and later taken up by urban planning gurus such as the Dane Jan Gehl. It is relatively common in Holland and Scandinavia, and Kensington and Chelsea was particularly keen to try it here.

Benches in "the middle of the road" on Exhibition Road, London

The idea is that when driving zones are heavily delineated, drivers tend to be on autopilot, focusing on other cars rather than pedestrians or cyclists. That’s why London has so many guard rails on either side of pedestrian crossings, preventing pedestrians from straying into the road where they’re not supposed to. But 10 years ago, Kensington and Chelsea experimented with removing the railings from Kensington High Street and found that the number of pedestrian accidents dropped by 60%. It seems that when drivers are forced to be more aware and pedestrians are forced to take more responsibility for themselves, everyone is safer. Rules, it seems, were counterproductive.

On Exhibition Road, the scheme is being introduced gradually. It will take time for locals to adjust. Meanwhile, cars proceed at a cautious 20mph. Strictly speaking, this not a totally “shared space”. There is still technically a pavement, but it is only distinguished by a row of ribbed “corduroy” pavers, aimed in particular at helping the blind. As with all the detailing, it is highly minimal. Everything here, from the studded parking spaces to the traffic lanes, is about suggestion rather than certainty. When the road officially opens next month, the whole system will continue to be monitored carefully, but as a promenade from the tube station to the park, it is already a liberating experience.

All three museums on Exhibition Road now have either primary or secondary entrances, and all three have free entry, so the architects imagined people wandering from one to the other. This is the idea behind the cross-hatching, which suggests diagonal paths across the road. It obviously has a strong subliminal effect, because you really do see people crossing diagonally. But, graphically, this pattern also somehow marks Exhibition Road as a leisure zone. It evokes Roberto Burle Marx’s wave-patterned promenade along Copacabana beach: a rigid, northern European version. And it’s extremely well made, with its sharply cut sets of Chinese granite. The craftsmanship reminds me of Lisbon’s pavements, except it’s too perfect. Nowhere has pavements as poetic as Lisbon.

Exhibition Road, London. Note the absence of curbs or guard rails; cars, pedestrians and cyclists mix freely.

The US architect Louis Khan used to say: “The street is a community room.” A long street, meanwhile, is a succession of rooms. And Exhibition Road is four quite distinct rooms. At the southern end, outside the tube station, it is as though the street is a public square. There are cafes and restaurants, and people eating their lunch sitting on the curb around the tunnel’s skylights – once the middle of a busy road. Across the Cromwell Road is the museum room, thronging with tourists. The next room along is outside Imperial College, and here the tourists give way to groups of students gathering in front of the steps. Finally, as we approach the Royal Geographical Society and the park, it feels residential, and the road returns to two distinct lanes of traffic. In this de-intensifying, it’s almost like a journey from the city centre to suburbia.

Already you can tell that people have abandoned that underground tunnel. It’s as though the number of pedestrians has expanded to fill the newfound space. At the same time, many of the buildings along the road have had their facades cleaned. “They’re smartening up to sit at this table,” says Jones.

Below is a set of photos showing the before and after images of a busy street in Germany redesigned by Monderman.

Drachten before


Drachten intersection after

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