A farewell to pavements
11 November 2011
By Justin McGuirk
Read More: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesi...-road-cultural
London's Exhibition Road, the great Victorian thoroughfare that stretches half a mile from South Kensington tube station to Hyde Park in London. In the last 18 months, it has been ripped up and remade to a new design that all but abolishes the distinction between road and pavement. Instead, there's one continuous surface, cross-hatched dramatically in black-and-white granite. Pedestrians can wander where they like: they'll just have to negotiate the cars and bicycles. It's all very liberal, and something of an experiment. The impetus for this rule-breaking design came in 2003 when the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea decided that Exhibition Road wasn't quite living up to its name.
- Today, Exhibition Road is in the final stages of its extraordinary transformation. With a few exceptions here and there, it is now a continuous, seamless surface of what is known as "shared space" – shared, that is, by drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. And the emphasis is very much on pedestrians, who now have two thirds of the road's width to themselves. This gracious scheme was designed by the architects Dixon Jones, who won the competition back in 2003, but they take no credit for the "shared space" concept. This was pioneered by the Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman and later taken up by urban planning gurus such as the Dane Jan Gehl. It is relatively common in Holland and Scandinavia, and Kensington and Chelsea was particularly keen to try it here.
- The idea is that when driving zones are heavily delineated, drivers tend to be on autopilot, focusing on other cars rather than pedestrians or cyclists. That's why London has so many guard rails on either side of pedestrian crossings, preventing pedestrians from straying into the road where they're not supposed to. But 10 years ago, Kensington and Chelsea experimented with removing the railings from Kensington High Street and found that the number of pedestrian accidents dropped by 60%. It seems that when drivers are forced to be more aware and pedestrians are forced to take more responsibility for themselves, everyone is safer. Rules, it seems, were counterproductive.
- Strictly speaking, this not a totally "shared space". There is still technically a pavement, but it is only distinguished by a row of ribbed "corduroy" pavers, aimed in particular at helping the blind. As with all the detailing, it is highly minimal. Everything here, from the studded parking spaces to the traffic lanes, is about suggestion rather than certainty. When the road officially opens next month, the whole system will continue to be monitored carefully, but as a promenade from the tube station to the park, it is already a liberating experience. However, it was not just a matter of improving Exhibition Road as a pedestrian thoroughfare. "It was a question of how this road could become more of a street," says Edward Jones, of Dixon Jones. It's called a road because that's what it was: a route from A to B. But with the arrival of first the museums and later Imperial College, it wanted to become more of a street, which is defined by entrances to the buildings along it.
- The US architect Louis Khan used to say: "The street is a community room." A long street, meanwhile, is a succession of rooms. And Exhibition Road is four quite distinct rooms. At 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.