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Chuck out the chintz

technical & practice - Will cleaning up the mean streets of Kensington result in more eye contact, nicer people and safer roads?

Kensington has been refurbished.

Or de-furnished, to be more accurate.

In a combined experiment in traffic engineering and urban design, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has recently taken to removing much of the street furniture, road markings, railings and signage in order to reduce the amount of clutter on the street. As the local authority website states, 'the guiding principle for the enhancement scheme has been based on the 'less is more' philosophy of the Royal Borough's streetscape principles'. But more than that, it has been based on the 'innovative solutions' of Ben Hamilton-Baillie of Hamilton-Baillie Associates, an urban design consultant.

For campaigners like English Heritage's Bill Bryson, who want to lighten the visual overload of Britain's signage-heavy roadsides, getting rid of road signs is a simple way of keeping Britain tidy. Hamilton-Baillie, on the other hand, has a higher ideal, and getting rid of signage is just the start. Certain road-control measures such as traffic lights, box junctions and even white lines, ought to be reduced and in many cases removed, he suggests, in order to reduce speed and prevent accidents. The theory is that motorists will behave sensibly and slow down to an appropriate speed to negotiate the traffic flowing in other directions. Hamilton-Baillie says that when visiting Holland, he tested the effectiveness of such a system by stepping out into the road with his eyes shut and has managed to walk across the road without cars screeching to a halt, and without personal injury.

A few years ago, Hamilton-Baillie, a former senior member of the cycling lobby group Sustrans, presented his findings at a conference entitled 'Fatally Attracted to Speed'. The event was supported by the Slower Speeds Initiative, thus indicating the direction of the research conclusions.

His original study was carried out in the rural Friesland area of Holland.

Friesland was one of the few Dutch regions where traffic accidents had risen in recent years, so the decline identified in the study was predicated on an unusually high baseline.

It is important to note that the infrastructure of Friesland was already regarded as inadequate to the extent that large areas of carriageway did not even have cycle tracks. So the improvements in the road network to ensure that the system was 'safe, self-explaining and forgiving' as Hamilton-Baillie describes it, included the introduction of roundabouts and traffic priority routes. So it might be less surprising to find that the intervention resulted in fewer accidents.

Extrapolating from his lessons abroad, Hamilton-Baillie takes the view that streets should be shared spaces with priority given to pedestrians. His experience of Scandinavian Home Zones - or woonerfs - is borne out in his practice's scheme proposals to plant trees in the centre of roads, encourage seating on the main carriageway, or omit priority markings on main city centre through-routes. All of these proposals have the effect of bringing doubt into the driver and forcing him or her to slow down. This is what Hamilton-Baillie calls 'psychological traffic calming'.

Many commentators, from both sides of the fence, seem to suggest that the biggest problem for road safety is the behaviour of motorists and the need for regular retraining or continual assessment; drivers cannot be trusted in their current condition. When everyone is treating the motorist as the nut behind the wheel, it is refreshing to hear a proponent of cycling like Hamilton-Baillie - of all people - suggesting that drivers should be trusted. But he only means that drivers can be trusted to learn the new rules.

Hamilton-Baillie says that his proposals, drawn up with Dixon Jones Architects, are concerned with removing the sense of security provided by barriers and forcing drivers 'to use their reactions.' Removing the security of the road may not seem like the most responsible thing to do, although it does force motorists to slow down. In the same way that turning off the street lights, or shining bright lights in drivers' eyes would. If the point is to make drivers slow down, then any of these policies might be seen as a success. If the point is to make a mockery of 100 years of road, traffic and highway engineering improvements (even though there are some real practical improvements included in the way the scheme is implemented) then this scheme - a celebration of glorious uncertainty - is the way forward.

But does Hamilton-Baillie's rejection of risk aversion do anything to challenge risk consciousness? Where would transport planning be today if highway engineers didn't try to introduce elements with which motorists could be confident. After all, officially sanctioned trepidation is not the most dynamic of urban strategies.

While the removal of 'clutter' and tidying up of our streetscape would be welcome in many instances, the fact that such an example of overdue road maintenance and highway engineering has received such fanfare, suggests that this is about something other than simply improving traffic flow.

While Kensington may think that its scheme is about tidy streets, even if we had the nicest and safest streets in Europe, this policy would still be introduced and fêted for its socially regenerative pretensions.

Since traffic speeds in London haven't changed much in 75 years, looking back on newsreel footage of the inter-war years, we see a romanticised world of organised mayhem with vehicles, horses and pedestrians negotiating the chaos. It all seems quaint.

So will Hamilton-Baillie's proposals signal a return to the anarchic motoring madness of a 1920s Mack Sennett movie? Will it signal a return to the day before we learned the lessons of road engineering? Impossible? His desire for eye contact to be the mediating factor in our actions - intended to snap us out of our car-bound isolationism - is his equally Utopian objective.

While Hamilton-Baillie believes that he is trying not to treat drivers as if they were idiots, if all we can aspire to is a slowed-down urbanism, he may actually be doing the idea of a fast and efficient transport system - and hence motorists, pedestrians and other road users - a disservice.

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