Imagine a world where you share the available space with others: without signs, sidewalks, or bicycle lanes. A vision otherwise known as shared space – and one that becomes more and more relevant with the crowding of our cities.

No designated zones. No demarcations or bollards. No shadings, labels, bars, barriers, or guard rails. Ultimate freedom. Undefined space that dispenses with linearities and requires complex thinking. Unplanned and unfettered; untainted by rules or definitions. While this might sound like urban science fiction or, possibly, impending chaos mixed with survival of the fittest, this particular concept is the declared dream of many traffic planners.

Shared space means streets freed of signs and signals; streets solely governed by right of way, leaving road users to their own devices. In order to restructure public space, it removes all superfluous interventions and contradictory guidelines.

Many countries are currently in the process of installing – or at least discussing – such ‘lawless’ areas: Germany and the Netherlands, Denmark and the UK, Switzerland and the USA, but also Australia and New Zealand. And no general authority dictates the exact terms of this global vision. Where the Dutch speak of “Woonerf,” Brits have their “home zone” and the Swiss a “Begegnungszone,” while the Antipodes favor a “shared zone.”

Hans Monderman smart magazine
Hans Monderman
Photo by: Jerry Michalski CC BY SA 2.0, via Flickr

Sometimes, less is more

One could argue that shared spaces have been around for a long time, simply under different terms and titles. Back in the 1970s, for example, residents enjoyed mixed traffic areas, traffic calming, and play streets. And yet, these were not quite the same: Shared space involves a new and radical push for equal rights of all road users, pedestrian and otherwise.

And while it was British urban designer Ben Hamilton-Baillie who coined the actual term, the concept itself was developed at the Keuning Instituut in the mid-1990s under former Dutch traffic manager Hans Monderman. Shortly before his death in 2006, Monderman explained the basic tenets of shared space to Wired magazine as such: “The problem with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something. To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

The idea of shared space works

Indeed, studies have shown that in many places – where signs and traffic lights have been removed and where each and every one is responsible for their own actions in ungoverned space – the rate of accidents goes down. The reason: the traditional strict separation between cars, cyclists, and pedestrians encourages clashes at crossings. And although shared space requires cars to lower their speed, it also cuts down on journey times since it encourages a continuous flow of traffic instead of bringing it to a halt through traffic signals.

Monderman was utterly convinced that shared space would work anywhere in the world because, underneath it all, people are basically the same, despite any cultural differences. In an interview with German daily taz he stated that “emotions and issues are the same everywhere. You should be able to read a street like a book. If you insist on constantly guiding people and treating them like idiots, you shouldn’t be surprised if they act like idiots after a while.”

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Monderman was utterly convinced that shared space would work anywhere in the world
Photo by: Matt Brown CC BY 2.0

Sharing is the new having

At the same time, the threat of looming idiocy is not the most pressing reason for a future traffic management rethink. Recent city planning, for example, has evolved along the same lines around the world: think highways and flyovers dissecting the city’s natural fabric, dedicated pedestrian zones, and large shopping malls. Clear-cut boundaries between driving, work, life, and shopping are emphasized by a thicket of signs. The result: ultimate, well-ordered bleakness.

At night, you might find yourself in an empty, soulless pedestrian zone – without any clues as to whether you are in Hannover or Budapest. A lot of the time, urbanization simply translates as uniformity.

In recent years, however, city and traffic planners have decided to tackle this issue with “road space attractiveness” measures to breathe new spirit into lifeless satellite towns. Their goal: a new definition of space and mobility against the background that the notion of “might is right” – and only if those in power stick to the rules – is more than outdated. The unregulated and unorthodox approach of shared space makes it obvious to each and every individual that this concept requires cooperation, that sharing is the new having.

No rules = chaos?

Critics of Monderman and Hamilton-Baillie have voiced that no rules implies the inevitable return of “might is right.” Yet who says that chaos reigns in the absence of order? That’s a questionable statement. Shared space certainly requires a new mindset and we can’t expect a swift shift away from traditional traffic planning – bigger, further, faster.

But the vision of no more set traffic cycles, fewer linear and predefined patterns, of freely flowing and intermingling participants in an open and boundless space, is equally unfettered and fascinating. A vision in the spirit of Pericles who wrote around 450 BC that “you need freedom for happiness and courage for freedom.”

Shared space smart magazine
Shared space certainly requires a new mindset
Photo by: Sam Saunders CC BY SA 2.0, via Flickr
Shared space smart magazine
Shared Space Madrid
photo by: Eurist CC BY 2.0
Shared space smart magazine
Cycling Into Shared Space
Photo by: Sam Saunders CC BY SA 2.0, via Flickr

Header image: Jared M, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr