So American

UPDATED POST on — Apologies for spelling errors —

When what we’ve been doing clearly isn’t working, counter-intuitive might be our best option. And that option is making our spaces unsafe so we can make them safe.

Ben Hamilton-Baillie gave a top-notch presentation at the recent Congress for the New Urbanism that covered shared space. It was easily one of the best presentations of the week, but also one of the hardest for an American audience to digest.

In a nutshell, shared space is an entirely different way to build our places. It’s an approach to urban design that aims to minimize demarcations (divisions amongst users) between vehicles and pedestrians. It usually involves changing road markings and removing traffic signs, curbs and hierarchical prioritization.

Anyone who hasn’t seen “Poynton Regenerated” needs to do so right now. You’ll notice that shared space can have an immediate impact in transforming a place. Poynton went from a struggling community choking on traffic to being voted one of the best places to live in the United Kingdom.

Before we can start implementing shared space in North America, we’ll need to overcome some bad tendencies. What am I talking about? Well, I bring this up because after Hamilton-Baillie’s presentation, there were three questions from the audience that struck me as symptomatic of our mindset (start here).

I’ll summarize:

Question 1: What do we do to manage storm water?

Question 2: What do we do about being sued by handicap people?

Question 3: Is this a novelty, and what effect might  that have?

These questions strike at the heart of how we operate in North America and the cultural challenges we’ll need to overcome to build shared space.

Question one deals with the role of hyper-specialization; where each field has an equal say at the table at any design process regardless of context. This is what leads to things like ADA-compliant ramps without sidewalks. Storm water management is important, however it’s not the problem they were trying to solve, which was an abundance of traffic and pedestrian unfriendliness.

Hamilton-Baillie politely downplays this question but unabashedly states the intersection redesign was about placemaking and a signal to drivers, not ecology. This is couldn’t be more context appropriate in the sense that the space is small, especially in comparison to the town’s overall size. And, if the goal was to prevent storm water runoff, it’d be best to apply the specialization’s best practices elsewhere. There might be other redesigns that could incorporate these ecological elements, but they don’t need to be installed at every corner as the American model may require.

Question two deals with lawsuits and the power of special interests in shaping our urban environment. We are a litigious society and this has shaped us to such a degree that we won’t do simple improvements because of the perceived threat of a lawsuit.

My question is, what are we doing right now that’s so good that doesn’t warrant drastic change?

We’ve had 25 years of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and what does it have to show for walkability? We have ramps (see here) and audible warnings on crosswalks. But, it’s hard not to view these as mere token gestures when we still create intersections like these and they’re all ADA-compliant.

Hamilton-Baillie responds by commenting that speed is the most important element. If you can calm speed, you can drastically reduce danger for everyone, especially the visually-impaired. Our hurdle here is to eliminate the idea of “priority”. As Chuck wrote over two years ago now, “The concept of sharing space is so foreign to Americans that it is worth deeper explanation. We’re not talking about having a place for everything … but that the concept of “priority” needs to be abolished in favor of an approach where all space is shared amongst transportation options.” 

In the meantime, we need to merely acknowledge that we may be sued, and then proceed. The cost of not creating better places far outweighs that of potentially being sued.

Question three is the most interesting. Is shared space a fading novelty? Hamilton-Baillie says “no” and I happen to agree. This a fair question coming from an American. We seem to always be the one’s jumping on trends enthusiastically (and thoughtlessly) and finding ourselves in unfortunate positions. Every city has a downtown mall, right? Oh, and a nice professional sports stadium.

Our towns have been so eagerly obsessed to “save / attract [insert thing]” that we’ve forgotten the simple things that it takes to make a good place. Shared space isn’t a trend or a fad. It’s the opposite. It’s the historical norm. In the course of human settlement, it wasn’t until recent we decided to separate priority. Plus, how presumptuous to call it a “trend” before we have any real examples in the United States. 

Shared space is an entirely different way to build our places, and one that doesn’t necessarily conform to our American processes or cultural mindset. That’s something we need to overcome. The idea that we need to design unsafe places to make them more safe is counter-intuitive. But, when what we’ve been doing clearly isn’t working, counter-intuitive might be your best option.


Now, here’s the song that inspired the title: “So American” by the best band to come out of Wasilla, Alaska, Portugal. The Man. They’re skipping Minneapolis (booo!), so I won’t have a chance to see them. In case you’re elsewhere, here’s upcoming tour dates.