Concerns about an urban design concept called shared space have emerged as it is used more widely throughout Europe. You may have heard of it but are not sure how it could impact on you or perhaps it’s not something that you’re familiar with as yet. In this article NCBI News hopes to provide more information on the impact of shared space on people who are blind or vision impaired.
What is shared space?
Shared space is a traffic calming measure originally developed in the Netherlands, which creates a street space that is shared by motorists, pedestrians and cyclists alike. All traffic control devices, such as signals, stop signs, pedestrian crossings, kerbs and cycle lanes are removed, placing the focus on quality of life within a city, rather than moving through a city with speed, in theory making it easier and more pleasant to get around on foot. Pedestrians, motorists and cyclists share the same space. This concept has become more popular in the UK and other European cities in recent years.
Shared space and people with sight loss
The difficulty with this concept for people who are blind or vision impaired is that it places the emphasis on eye contact and person-to-person negotiation between those using the space to decide on right of way. This creates an obvious barrier for people who are blind or have low vision, who may not be able to see drivers and cyclists to engage in this kind of negotiation.
Footpath kerbs act as clear boundary markers
Without kerbs, people who use a long cane or guide dog find it impossible to travel safely and independently, as it is very hard to locate where the footpath ends and the road begins.
Shared space in Ireland
In Ireland, no true shared space design has been fully implemented but instead, bits and pieces of the original concept have been adopted, for instance in O’Connell Street and on the new Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin and in Patrick Street in Cork. However, in both O’Connell Street and Patrick Street the shared space design had to be retro-fitted to make it more accessible to pedestrians who are blind or vision impaired.
Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind have found that on Patrick Street in Cork, it has been extremely difficult to train guide dogs to work in the kerb-less conditions. Guide dogs operate by moving forward and stopping at any kerb they encounter, awaiting instruction from their user at that point. The owner memorises specific routes using kerbs as orientation clues, and orders the dog either to turn or to cross, each time they come to a kerb. It is not possible to train dogs to stop when they reach tactile paving at the edges of roads.
Shared space conference
NCBI’s Rehabilitation Training Centre in Drumcondra held a conference on shared space in early March to give people who are blind or vision impaired a chance to find out more about the concept. Speakers included experts from NCBI, Irish Guide Dogs, the Irish Wheelchair Association, guide dog users, long cane users and people with low vision.
PJ Hogan, training team leader with Irish Guide Dogs, spoke about the difficulty in choosing dogs to work in environments with no kerbs or boundaries.
“We currently face shared space every day on our country roads, where there are no paths or kerbs but the removal of the pavement in an urban setting is new. A dog has to be selected very carefully, especially if the user is going to be travelling in multiple environments, like suburban, urban and rural. This reduces the selection of dogs and a concept like shared space reduces that selection even further, as it will take a lot of time to train a dog to work in that environment.”
Fiona Kelty, NCBI’s access and awareness co-ordinator, has been working with other interested stakeholders and with local authorities, in an effort to encourage consultation to ensure that any shared space is designed with people with sight loss in mind. At the conference Fiona spoke about the progress that has been made in relation to accessible design.
“Legislation has been very important in the development of built environments that are accessible to people who are blind or vision impaired. We have been largely successful in getting people in charge to see that we need to change the environment, not the person. Every citizen has the right to get around independently and safely and if something is being designed for public use, it has to be for everybody. I have recently commented on Dublin City Council’s development plan, which will take them up to 2017. There is no mention of shared space in the document and yet it is being used, without any consultation with those affected by it.”
Molemisi Kono, mobility officer with NCBI, also spoke about how shared space will impact on people with sight loss.
“Shared space means the removal of clutter from our streets, which is a good thing, but we also need clear demarcation to know where the path is and where the road is. We need sufficient clues in our environment to enable people to get where they want to go. Removal of these clues, such as kerbs, will undermine confidence and will put people at risk, as well as creating barriers for independent mobility. What our streets need is simple, logical and consistent layout. The use of different textures is very important, whether you use an aid like a cane or a guide dog, or you can get around without an aid. We have the right to enjoy our streets and the right to safety.”
While there are some good elements to shared space, as Neil Murphy from the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, points out, it is the lack of a national policy that is proving problematic in Ireland.
“There are good aspects to shared space, such as slowing traffic down and improving streets but the problem is that it is, as yet, undiscovered territory in Ireland. It has become a real trend in England and Irish local authorities are following suit without looking into it properly. Under the principles of universal design, those involved in designing and planning our streets should be in constant communication with stakeholders to ensure the best outcome for everyone but we have found that people are blindly jumping into this,” said Neil.
Where to go from here?
One of the difficulties in Ireland is that there is no policy or standards in place for the use of shared space by those involved in urban design. Outside of the Disability Act 2005 and Part M of the building regulations, which covers access for people with disabilities, engineers, architects and planners are unsure of how to implement shared space to the benefit of all and the concept is being interpreted differently by different individuals and companies. As our population ages and sight loss becomes more prevalent, this problem is only going to become more obvious.
Neil Murphy also outlines the importance of developing a policy on shared space: “We need to develop a best practice standard for this area. For example, one of the big problems is the removal of kerbs. I don’t see why kerbs cannot be maintained but we need more research before we begin implementing shared space around the country. Local authorities provide the streets and look after them so that is the place to start, and they are happy to work with us, but we also need to look at the education of designers and those involved in urban design so that accessibility is taken into account at an early stage in planning.”
The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design is planning to hold a comprehensive shared space workshop in May, bringing together all those involved in the built environment in local authorities and stakeholder groups to debate the pros and cons of the concept and to talk about next steps for Ireland.
NCBI is calling for further research into the benefits of the use of shared space in urban design and for the development of standards for those involved in designing our towns and cities. The Government has committed, through the Disability Act 2005, to create a more equal environment for people with disabilities and this must be followed through, with the Department of the Environment as the leading organisation, to planning our towns and cities to the benefit of all citizens. Any debate around the development of a shared space strategy for Ireland should be driven by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.