Shared space works to bring civility to our lives

As more of us retire from long-held work schedules and begin to look at where and how we might want to live for the next five or so years, residing within a compatible neighborhood seems like something to investigate.


Published June 11, 2007 by The Third Age
By Ann Gowans 

As more of us retire from long-held work schedules and begin to look at where and how we might want to live for the next five or so years, residing within a compatible neighborhood seems like something to investigate.

When asked, many of us say we want a quiet, civilized place to call home, one that is safe, sociable and still close enough to city centers that we can have the best of both worlds. It might be true that the way roads are planned as well as the placement of entry and egress from neighborhoods could have a civilizing influence on the residents who live within those areas. This idea comes from a new road management concept being created and tested by some communities in the United Kingdom and a number of other countries.

Although not new, it is an idea that has gained popularity as our world becomes more crowded. One example, reported in the Financial Times by Clare Dowdy, is a two-lane road in the community of St. Werburghs, Bristol, in the UK. There are 45 families living on a narrow but overly busy two-lane road into the neighborhood. Homeowners decided something had to be done with all the cars that were double-parked, put on gardens and spreading the street onto lawns and sidewalks. The cars cut down communication among neighbors on the lane and made it unsafe for children trying to ride bicycles to school or walkers exercising.

Road planners asked the residents if they were willing to remove one lane and turn the street into an enclave for those who live there. They proposed leaving a roadway just wide enough to allow two cars to pass each other going in or out – but not park – and severely reducing the speed limit, making it safer for bicycles and pedestrians. Parallel-only parking was introduced, and planters were installed to beautify the lane and discourage traffic.

An interesting thing happened after the residents voted to approve the changes and secure the funding they needed to narrow the once-busy road. Folks started to take pride in their homes, and new gardens flourished. The families visited each other more often, and their children were allowed to ride their bikes and play games with others on the lane. They learned each other’s names and shared news of their lives, and many became close friends and looked after each other in times of trouble.

The neighborhood has become a desirable place for families to live "because it is a safe place for the children to grow up." Many believe that home prices appreciated as each family took responsibility for the care of a planter and the whole lane became more beautiful. The urban planning philosophy behind this example of an overcrowded, somewhat dismal street being turned into a great place to live is one that could well apply to neighborhoods in communities all over the world. The idea behind it is to create a more people-friendly environment.

The father of this "shared space" movement is Dutch engineer Hans Monderman, who believes that "we should learn to build villages in the way they were built in the past." He believes – and I agree – that we have allowed cars to dominate residential areas, particularly in our suburbs, and this has brought about a downturn in our overall quality of life. If we put people first in our planning for residential streets and neighborhoods, we change the way we plan streets.

The essential idea is, of course, to make people slow down, even as we develop cars that are larger, have more power and can accelerate to almost ridiculous speeds. We really don’t need to go that fast, even on a highway. Let’s separate the trucks into their own roadways and allow them to build, maintain and manage them – or, better yet, put their contents back on the rails. This would help clear our highways and roadways of dense and often unsafe traffic and make driving safer for aging folks who will surely want to drive well into their old age.

Many large cities have successfully used shared space principles to reclaim the public realm. These include Copenhagen, Denmark; Barcelona, Spain; Lyon and Strasbourg in France; and Freiburg in Germany. Portland, Ore., has signed on, as have Curitiba in Brazil, Cordoba in Argentina and Melbourne in Australia. The bicycle is central to the transformation of traffic in these cities. Bicycle traffic lights are, for example, timed to turn green six seconds before those for cars. Most of the city’s four-lane roads are gone, reduced to two with a waiting lane for cyclists in the middle.

In a number of cities, downtown street parking is being done away with, and car parks are going up on the outskirts instead with transportation to the central city made cheap, easy and kind to commuters. They can even have a bicycle waiting for them as they arrive as a means of getting around the city if feet won’t do it. I noticed this arrangement in Copenhagen a couple of years ago, and it seemed very popular.

Some cities enjoy more bike lanes and others more sidewalks. Street furniture and lighting also seem to play a part in making any street or avenue more inviting and safer. Another thing that flourishes is putting more people on their feet. When the streets are safe and pleasant to walk on, more folks will use their God-given legs to get them around. The introduction of increased civility into the experience of city life and work has a distinctly civilizing influence on the entire populace. Putting automobiles first in our lives does little to help us live together in peace and community.

Jan Gehl, professor of urban design at the School of Architecture in Copenhagen, thinks "the whole system of conventional urban traffic planning is the systematic removal of civility. In a traditional city, public spaces were for meeting, marketing and moving. But in the past century, the moving has taken over."

The home zone and shared space movements are important in bringing our world back to some kind of communal life. Now these guys must find a way for those of us who are growing old to get around without cars. Home is where we want to be; now plan to get us out into our communities with a safe and welcoming hand.

Columbian Ann Gowans has a doctorate in social gerontology and medical sociology. She has worked and taught in the field for 25 years. You may reach her via e-mail at