Shared spaces: sustainist urban life at London’s Exhibition Road.

Since the beginning of this year London has its first street scheme based on the idea of ‘shared spaces’ — very sustainist at heart. In essence, 'shared spaces' are traffic calming areas where the kerbs, traffic lights, sign posts and road markings are removed in order that all road users (pedestrians, cyclists, drivers etc.) have an equal right to use the road and are encouraged to consider one another's safety. This creates a shared sense of responsibility and also has been proven to lower road accidents.

Exhibition Road

The new street design at Exhibition Road can be seen as the urban realisation of Charles Leadbeater’s ‘Beach Ethic’ (which by the way inspired the name of ‘The Beach’, the network organisation driving the Open Book for Sustainist Design project). For Leadbeater a beach is a model civic space: ”a commons where people can self-organise in play (...) there are no zoning regulations, fences nor white lines to tell you where to go. ”

Justin McQuirk, design writer for The Guardian newspaper, recalls architect Louis Kahn’s saying that "The street is a community room." In McQuirk’s review of the London street experiment, he describes the new Exhibition Road as four quite distinct rooms. “The southern end, outside the tube station, it is as though the street is a public square. There are cafes and restaurants, and people eating their lunch sitting on the kerb around the tunnel's skylights – once the middle of a busy road. Across the Cromwell Road is the museum room, thronging with tourists. The next room along is outside Imperial College, and here the tourists give way to groups of students gathering in front of the steps. Finally, as we approach the Royal Geographical Society and the park, it feels residential, and the road returns to two distinct lanes of traffic. In this de-intensifying, it's almost like a journey from the city centre to suburbia.”

The quality of sharing is increasingly recognized as a key element of what we may call sustainist urban life. Since its opening the new ‘shared space’ scheme at London Exhibition Road, has won a number of prestigious awards, including the Award for Excellence in Walking and the Public Realm' and A Community Award, as an example of a design that improves public space and infrastructure and enhance the living and working environment for the local community build on innovation, creativity and social value. The new London Exhibition Road offers a free wifi internet service right across the area, extending the shared space into the digital realm.

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