New Urban News

US Shared Space: Starting Small


Philip Langdon

New Urban News, December 2010

From a 100-foot-long section of Linden Street in San Francisco to the diminutive Palmer Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Americans are timidly dipping their toes in the shared-space street movement. The motto seems to be: start with the shortest possible piece of pavement.

Cambridge created two shared-space streets, both in 2008. The first was on Winthrop Street, adjoining Winthrop Park, near Harvard Square. It’s a narrow, minor street near restaurants. People were already walking in the street, so it was natural to be officially designated a shared space. A sign identifies it as shared by pedestrians and vehicles, with a posted speed limit of 10 mph.

Several months afterward, Palmer Street, a short passage next to the Harvard Coop, was converted to shared space. Uncomfortably narrow sidewalks and a cobblestone street surface were replaced by pink and gray concrete pavers running from building to building, a distance of perhaps 20 feet. The concrete pavers aren’t pretty but easy to walk on.

Cara Seiderman, transportation program manager in the city’s Community Development Department, says both redone streets have been well accepted and used. Probably because of the makeover, Palmer Street has attracted restaurants, some of which have live music at night. Winthrop Street “became so popular that restaurants lobbied to have the street closed,” Seiderman says. “They wanted to have more tables and chairs.” Thus vehicular traffic is banned for part of each day.
Seiderman believes, “If you’re trying a concept for the first time, it’s better to start with something where you’re sure it will be successful.” Don’t design every street the same, she advises. Instead, essential questions are: “What are the goals for the street? What can be done to achieve the goals?”

In San Francisco, a block of Linden Street has become the city’s first permanent “living alley.” “The passage for vehicles is narrowed by an abstract grid of bunch grass and sea lavender interspersed with low ‘benches’ — granite slabs that lined the roadway until this summer,” design writer John King observed approvingly in the Oct. 26 San Francisco Chronicle.

King noted, “The idea was to blur the line between sidewalk and street, but the design had to be open for fire trucks to race through. … As for the notion of a concrete terrain free of bollards and curbs, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires tactile cues to signal the presence of traffic lanes to people using wheelchairs or who have impaired vision.” It took five years from start to finish.

Despite the bureaucratic contortions it endured, the redone Linden setting is regarded as a big success by David Winslow, an architect who labored to bring it into being. “It’s a space that can play the role of a small park, a social outlet,” Winslow told King.

For more on shared-space streets, see Oct. 2008 New Urban News.