Exhibition Road Says Sayonara to Sidewalks and Hello to Shared Space
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. Once the main route to the Great Exhibition, held in Hyde Park in 1851, it remains perhaps London's grandest cultural artery. Leading to the Royal Albert Hall at its northern end and bordered by the Victoria and Albert Museum on one side and the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum on the other, its various institutions collectively get more visitors a year than Venice.
Yet it had become a glorified car park, frequently choked with lines of coaches. And with the grimy dual carriageway of the Cromwell Road cutting across it, it's no wonder that many pedestrians preferred to take the dank Victorian tunnel that runs under Exhibition Road from the tube station to the Science Museum.
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.On the surface, this idea seems to challenge convention, drawing on but a few similarly executed experiments in Holland and Scandinavia. I question whether we're actually just revisiting the turn of the 20th century street life, where pedestrians, street cars, horse-drawn carts and carriages all shared the road. Further, what else can we look to in the past as we design for the future of cities?