A Chicane Is Not A Shared Space Place

Looking north on University Place towards the 14th Street Busway. Manhattan’s newest slow street.

A space is only a place if people want to be there. The chicane shown above is for traffic calming, not placemaking. Putting that another way, it’s a product of traffic engineering, not a piece of urban design.

I understand this design is a step towards something better, which is slower, safer streets in New York City. I support that, but there’s no reason it can’t be a better place for people than it is. This is supposed to be a shared-space street, and there are better ways to get to that goal.

We know from social science and neuroscience studies that both our conscious and unconscious thoughts gravitate to beauty and seek to avoid ugliness. Our conscious minds might think the “flexible delineator posts” make sense and don’t look too bad, but our unconscious self is repelled. It sees the cheap plastic sticks and other cues that mark the space as a place for machines, and it knows that’s a dangerous place for humans.

The easiest way to make a place for people on a straight street is to line everything up: the buildings, the sidewalks, the trees, the roadway, and even the paint (if there is paint—see below).Unless your street has great buildings shaping it and is well proportioned, trees are an easy fix too. See The Seven Roles of Urban Street Trees. Line them up and space them regularly.  When it comes to placemaking, proportions matter.

A street that is too wide doesn’t feel like a place. But perhaps surprisingly, a street with a proportion of 1 to 1 or 2 to 1—meaning that the buildings shaping the space are the same height as the width of the street, or that they are twice as high—feels better than a street with a random building-to-width ratio.

That might sound odd, but we have evidence to prove it. Even the width or narrowness of the sidewalk can make an otherwise-well-designed street feel better or worse. The pleasing, whole-number ratios are also found in music, so this system of dimensions is known as Harmonic Proportion.

In the photo above, concrete tubs with shrubs in them fill some of the space. This disrupts the harmony of what the Danish urban designer Jan Gehl calls “the space between the buildings.” In cities, that is the public space, also known as the public realm.

The public realm is where city life takes place. Since the 1920s, our governments have increasingly given it to the car. In the example above, the street is no longer designed to make it comfortable for drivers to go as fast as possible, but even in this example of traffic calming, the car still comes first.

People feel best in public spaces where the space between the buildings is harmonious. Cutting it up into pieces that have little or nothing to do with human perception or feeling disrupts the harmony. KISS—Keep It Simple Stupid is usually right for placemaking.

Beautiful cities have a balance of richness and order. The richness should come from the elements that shape the space, like the buildings and the trees, and not from the street paving or pattern. If the street jumps out at you, it’s overdesigned.

One exception to the KISS Rule can be Tactical Urbanism projects. Colorful paint on the street can announce to the community that change is coming. But when we surveyed design professionals and people from other professions to make a list of favorite streets around the world, we found that 100% of them had muted color palettes. In fact, all the streets had grey paving patterns and materials.

The conscious mind sees a virtue in slowing traffic by disrupting the space. In early Dutch efforts to reclaim the streets for people, the slowest streets frequently had similar traffic chicanes, with plantings that had no relationship to the overall space of the street. But the Dutch, who are decades ahead of us in these experiments, no longer use chicanes for shared-space, city streets. Recent conversations with some of the best street designers in the Netherlands confirm this.

Over time, the Dutch discovered that the best way to make safe, shared-space streets is to remove all the detritus of traffic engineering. In the words of Hans Monderman  (the great Dutch traffic engineer who in many ways is the father of modern shared-space streets), “The trouble 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” (KISS).

I’ll be writing more about this, but there’s much more already in Street Design:

About John Massengale

Architect, Urbanist, Author, Educator
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