Talking with Ben Hamilton-Baillie About "Shared Streets"

UK Expert on Shared Streets to Speak at CNU 22

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Imagine what would happen if overnight the Town of Jackson, Wyoming removed all of the streetlights, streetsigns and road markings. Would tourists be quickly flattened by cars rocketing past to the slopes? Would truckers on Route 26 maintain their speed as they passed through the center of town, jackknifing in front of the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar?

Probably not, according to Ben Hamilton-Baillie. Ben is an architect, urban designer and movement specialist based in Bristol, England. His passion is for streets and other public spaces, and the ways in which urban and rural areas influence the relationships and encounters between movement and activities. His work on shared space and the factors that promote civility has helped transform established assumptions and practice in the UK surrounding traffic engineering, speed and safety. On June 6th, Ben will have a plenary spot at CNU 22 in Buffalo to share his experiences implementing shared streets. 

CNU's Tim Halbur connected with Ben last week while he was on the road:

CNU: Do you think shared streets could work in North America? Do you have some ideas of how they might be implemented differently here?

B H-B: I am convinced that the principle of shared space and low-speed, civilised streets could be beneficially applied in North America. Although the urban form, scale and context is often very different – and often particularly challenging! – human psychology is the same everywhere. And it is working with the grain of human behaviour and interaction which lies at the heart of shared space.

Successful shared space tends to rely on a close relationship between streets and their immediate context – the buildings and activities, landmarks and geography that surround streets. This is easier in towns and cities with long histories and a rich context, than in the more modern, post-automobile-designed cities of North America. But this merely means that some of the elements of place-making and street design have to be a little stronger and clearer than in Europe. The scale in North America is often greater, but that merely means that the designs have to work harder to re-establish a pedestrian context and clarity.

I have visited and observed small towns in Vermont, New Hampshire and elsewhere in New England where shared space continues to be the accepted tradition for town centers and main streets. Once drivers receive the right cues, and are “told the right story”, making use of common courtesies and negotiation is no great problem.


A stunning before and after of an intersection in Poynton, UK that implemented a shared streets strategy

CNU: I was reading at your site how you used a horse-trough in Ireland as a focal point to channel the traffic movement. How do you determine what assets and obstacles shape the city's flow?

B H-B: We try and make use of every available element to strengthen and reinforce the distinctive identity of each street or place. Sometimes this is merely a matter of making better use of whatever we find, such as the horse-trough in Dun Laoghaire near Dublin. Sometimes it involves better use of trees, or lighting, or street furniture. And sometimes we introduce public art or “objets trouve” to help shape flow and create places. In Ashford in Kent, we introduced a strange “rusty nut” into the middle of the street, which serves as a sort of mysterious informal roundabout.

CNU: You use a palette of surface materials to manage speed and character. What sorts of materials work best, in your experience?

B H-B: Just as in architecture, paving materials help convey values, priorities and purpose. Recent street design has often been limited to a very limited palette of asphalt or concrete. Whilst these are excellent materials, we often use a much wider range of paving materials such as blocks, setts or cobbles, materials that can respond to the buildings or surroundings, and which can influence behaviour through our visual, auditory and tactile senses. Blocks often suggest lower speeds, and can be useful to contrast with more linear elements of streets. But we also use surface applications, paints, bonded gravel – anything that helps tell a rich story. I have an ambition to create a complete street out of reinforced grass one day – perhaps in the damp and rain-soaked west of Britain or Ireland…

CNU: Have you ever learned something from a community process that was totally unexpected and changed your mind?

B H-B: Working with local residents ALWAYS changes our thinking, and influences outcomes. We can never hope to gather the wealth and depth of local knowledge and understanding built up within communities during our project work, so we rely on LOTS of listening, observing, and questioning. In Poynton, the navigational clues and day-to-day habits of a number of blind or partially-sighted residents helped to re-think and redefine many specific details such as street furniture positions, paving materials and kerb designs. I have also been astonished by how much creativity and imagination can flow from local communities, once they feel empowered to own and influence the street.

CNU: You're seen as the shared streets guy now. What else would you like to be working on that you see as key to revitalizing cities?

B H-B: Wow – that is a big question! Give me just a few more lifetimes, and I might begin to feel fulfilled! There are two interrelated issues that I would love to spend more time on. The first is how to develop spatial and dynamic modelling for people with limited or restricted sight. I am generally not a great believer in purely technological solutions, but I would love to do more work on electronic and laser based guidance for blind people. We already carry such sophisticated technology around in our smart phones, and vehicles can communicate through such devices. It is a field of research and development that is critical to encouraging inclusive streets and cities.

Secondly, I would like to work on a better understanding of RISK, and the concept of safety. I am convinced that an over-simplistic approach to risk and safety stifles many beneficial initiatives in cities, from children’s play to community celebration. I have a nearly-finished paper that starts with the words “Most accidents are good things”. Understanding the vital role of risk in creating good cities, and in enriching life, is a subject I would love to spend more time on. It is a subject that is particularly critical for North America, where fear of risk or liability can be a major burden on revitalising cities. Maybe just two more lives…?

Catch Ben Hamilton-Baillie June 6th at CNU 22 in Buffalo. CNU Board Member and transportation specialist Norman Garrick will be joining him for the session.