How to Reimagine Our Streets Around the Concept of Shared Space

CNU22 featured speakers from all over the world, from Bogotá to Toronto to Brighton. One plenary speaker from Bristol moved the audience with an idea called Shared Space that was beautifully simple and innovative, yet entirely new to most of the crowd.

Ben Hamilton-Baillie is a British urban designer, “recovering” architect and self-taught in the area of transportation planning. His presentation focused on explaining Shared Space as an urban design technique that can alleviate the frequently problematic interface between pedestrians, cyclists, automobiles and the public realm.

As the name would suggest, Shared Space advances the idea that streets themselves can be a seamless part of public space that is shared by all users. The method came from the Netherlands, where Hamilton-Baillie studied under transportation engineer Hans Monderman and Joost Váhl, who developed the Dutch woonerfs where pedestrians and cyclists have priority on roadways.

The concept also integrates a thoughtful assessment of human psychology as it relates to driving. “It’s essential to understand the changing view of the nature of risk,” Hamilton-Baillie explained. “Hazards keep us aware of our environment and allow us to adapt our behavior.”

This seems counter-intuitive, but it was effectively explained through an example of two cities in the Tel Aviv region of Israel.

Bnei-Brak, located east of Tel Aviv, is composed of largely low-income, ultra-conservative Jews. Ramat-Gan, also located east of Tel Aviv, is home to a more moderate, middle-income Jewish population. Hamilton-Baillie explained that the people of Bnei-Brak are known throughout the region as being unruly pedestrians. Adults and children cross streets with disregard for traffic. Locals know that they must be vigilant when driving there.

Conversely, the residents of Ramat-Gan respect pedestrian rules, crosswalks, and jaywalk less frequently. Drivers are more at ease in Ramat-Gan.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, there is a higher instance of pedestrian fatality in Ramat-Gan. Drivers in Bnei-Brak tend to cautiously drive at lower speeds, aware that there is a greater risk of a pedestrian appearing in the road. One can see in this example that increased risk makes for more attentive drivers.

Shared Space utilizes risk in the form of mixing cyclists, pedestrians and motorists on streets, and relies on the idea that removing lines and signaling allows for social protocols to take over more strongly than signs. This, Hamilton-Baillie said, is called “friction”, or natural cues that guide a driver’s speed. There is already an increasing awareness in North America that things like narrow streets, street trees and buildings built to the right-of-way naturally induce drivers to reduce speed without a speed-limit.

One might think that this friction would create delays, but evidence from project implementation has found the opposite, as did Hans Monderman’s projects in the Netherlands. And post-project evaluations, like in Poynton, UK, have confirmed the efficacy of Shared Space designs.

Poynton is a city southeast of Manchester. It is a throughway for traffic between the two larger cities of Macclesfield and Stockport. In this instance, vehicles were found to be passing on the main thoroughfare at a rate of 26,000 per day, many of which were trucks. The initial approach to relieve congestion was the construction of additional lanes of traffic.

Shared Space, however, was applied as part of a regeneration scheme in Poynton. The first task for Hamilton-Baillie’s consultancy was to “remove every trace of traffic engineering.”

Three lanes of cars were reduced to one, signaling was removed, additional on-street parking was introduced, and sidewalks were widened. There was increased edge friction through vertical elements within the driver’s line of vision.

Even after the removal of two lanes and signals, traffic flow stayed the same and pedestrian traffic increased five-fold. Before the project, 16 of 32 shops in town were boarded up; but within one to two years after project completion, all shop spaces in the business district were occupied.

Streets were able to concurrently be part of Poynton public space and serve through traffic – the change in aesthetics was remarkable.

It is certain that freight and car movement is critical to the healthy functioning of any economy. This fact is not contested. But since civilizations started building cities, they have been venues for people to roam – sometimes at odds with our economic necessity to move people and goods through them quickly.

Fast big things and slow small things do not mix well.

Shared Space demonstrates that these seemingly incompatible users actually function better when mixed within the city fabric – cars move more fluidly when drivers are forced to react to their surroundings instead of their actions being dictated to them. People are safer, too.

The outcome is that streets become a different kind of public space, where mobility means interacting with one’s surroundings.

When asked if he thought famously impatient North American drivers could adapt to the concept, he paused for a moment and said, “Everywhere Shared Space has been applied, I was told that the drivers in the locale couldn’t adapt. In every case they did.”

Performances Kick-Off This Evening for 11th Annual Cincinnati Fringe Festival

After an eclectic parade on Monday and a kick-off party last night, the 11th annual Cincinnati Fringe Festival officially gets started today with its first round of performances.

The 12-day event has become a national draw over the years, and organizers expect more than 8,000 people to attend this year’s festival. As expected, the 2014 rendition will boast an impressive collection of 38 unique productions and more than 160 performances at a dozen venues tightly clustered in Over-the-Rhine.

“This year’s festival is one of the biggest ever,” said Eric Vosmeier, Producing Artistic Director at the Know Theatre. “We had a record number of FringeNext applications, our high school artist version of the Fringe, and subsequently added an additional slot to FringeNext because the applications were so strong.”

 

Vosmeier also said that he is excited about the three international acts, two from the United Kingdom and one from Israel, at this year’s festival.

The growth and increasing popularity of the Fringe Festival has seemingly mirrored that of the neighborhood is has called home. That trend, however, is now also posing some problems as available, low-cost venue locations are harder to come by.

“We’re thrilled that the neighborhood has reached a critical mass of stable and thriving businesses, but the challenge this poses to our festival is real,” Vosmeier explained. “There was a time when empty storefronts were always available. There was a time when neighborhood landlords shared space at low or no cost – I remember a couple of years when my venue rental costs were $0.”

Vosmeier says that venue costs for this year’s festival were closer to $8,000, and says that organizers are looking to do everything in their power to keep the nearly two-week event in this area of Over-the-Rhine for the foreseeable future, but also realize the challenges they faced this year will probably not be going away.

Fortunately, he says, long-time supporters like Coffee Emporium, Art Academy of Cincinnati and Urban Sites continue to come through with a number of guaranteed venues each year.

The hard work put in by volunteers and Know Theatre employees is something that has helped make the festival a favorite for participating artists who are treated to the country’s smallest application fee, free housing, no participation fees and the opportunity to learn from other artists during the festival’s workshop and development series.

“We have tried to create the most artist-friendly festival possible,” said Vosmeier. “We have ample, but not the biggest box office payouts, but because we make it nearly free of costs for artists to play with us, they see the value in coming to Cincinnati’s Fringe.”

Such treatment has not only benefitted the artists, but also the festival itself. According to organizers, rolling out the welcome mat in such a way has helped foster an “extremely loyal” set of artists that are always looking to participate in Cincinnati’s annual Fringe event. Those loyal artists then, in turn, become ambassadors to other artists, of which 90% are referred by past artists.

Vosmeier also says that the return of these artists year after year better positions the city when those individuals consider relocation.

“I am currently talking with three individual artists who are seriously contemplating a move to Cincinnati, and it’s all due to their experiences stemming from the Cincinnati Fringe Festival,” Vosmeier emphasized. “Artists can be fickle and to have helped create a festival that makes an artist think ‘I might like to move to Cincinnati’ makes us feel like we’ve accomplished something pretty extraordinary.”

After organizing the festival for many years, however, Vosmeier has said that he will step down from his leadership role at the Know Theatre after the last performance concludes next Saturday.

“Working on this festival has truly been one of the privileges of my career. I love virtually everything about it,” Vosmeier told UrbanCincy. “We certainly have challenges each year. But in the end, this event fills us with so much joy and appreciation for our city, these amazing artists, and our audiences that it’s hard to focus on anything but the unique pop-up community that we create for twelve ridiculously invigorating days.”

Those who want to participate in one or more of the 12 invigorating days can do so by purchasing tickets online for just $12. The first performances get started this evening at 7pm. A full schedule for the 2014 Cincinnati Fringe Festival can be downloaded and viewed online.

Could Europe’s social supermarkets serve as a model for America?

The U.K. opened its first “social supermarket” in December. South Yorkshire’s Community Shop combines social services with a discount grocery store by offering heavily discounted groceries as well as classes on cooking, budgeting, and job skills. The obvious benefit is that less usable food goes into landfills and more food goes to the people who need it.  However, social supermarkets’ real strength is in its ability to shift control and dignity back to the individual. More from NPR:

Part discount grocer, part social service agency, the supermarkets are for members only. Membership is free, but it is limited to those who can prove they receive some form of welfare benefits. Members can save up to 70 percent on food that has been rejected by grocers because it might be mislabeled, have damaged packaging or be nearing an expiration date. That food is still edible, though, so instead of getting thrown away, it’s donated with a waiver of liability.