Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Ashford Ring Road, Shared Space

Whenever we hear about the rights and wrongs of shared space being debated in the media, one scheme seems to be mentioned more than others – the Ashford ring road. Jeremy Clarkson hates it, I suspect Guide Dogs for the Blind aren’t too keen and local residents have complained that someone will surely be killed! I thought it was worth checking out…

Geek that I am, I actually arranged to spend the night in Ashford before I headed off to France for my hols the following day. Unfortunately, traffic and the British weather conspired against me and I ended up arriving in Ashford at about half past nine, on a dark and rainy night. As a result I didn’t get any decent photo’s (and hence why I’ve included a few from around the interweb) and I probably missed a few of the schemes intricacies.

It’s an interesting design, and perhaps not quite as radical as I’d imagined it to be. The thought of making a ring road a shared space, conjured up images of pedestrians trying to get across a dual carriageway. In reality it’s not quite as dramatic as this, and it’s pretty much a standard stretch of urban road that’s been given the shared space treatment. That said, Ashford have gone for the full shared space package – no kerbs and some big spaces where cars and pedestrians can intermingle. Personally, I think you can achieve a lot whilst still having some small kerbs and I’m not convinced that big spaces with cars and pedestrians mixing, are necessarily the best idea.

However, I’d imagine that on a nice day it’s an attractive scheme with lots of new street trees, and I particularly liked the look of some of the hard detailing. However the biggest surprise for me is the abundance of some seriously wacky public art. One of the key concepts of shared space is that by making drivers feel unsure and even uncomfortable, you reduce their speed and ensure that they behave with more consideration for other road users. Hence, I can understand the rationale for incorporating some art features. However, I think that there is also a danger that you will also make pedestrians also feel uncomfortable, by including so many seemingly incomprehensible features. I’m just not sure that the combination of rather frivolous art, and a pretty serious change in road safety policy, is a great idea. It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence and I’m not particularly surprised that so many local users have been baffled by the whole thing. I would also imagine that it rather reinforces the idea that the Council have ‘gone mad’.

The worst offender by far, is the ‘Notaroundabout’ installation (not a round about, how clever). The image below was emailed to me with just two accompanying words. Utter tosh. It looks to me like someone’s buried a rusting, miniature observatory in a giant, patio recreation of a Moorish garden.

Despite all of I’ve said, I’d still be interested to visit the scheme again – ideally in daylight. It’s a bit of an ongoing experiment really; some things have worked, others haven’t. But for anyone interested in public realm and shared space, it is fascinating. I’d also really like to hear from other people who’ve visited and experienced the scheme.


  1. I am impressed that you went out of your way to visit Ashford and not just pass through.

    You make some interesting observations but I would like to add three points:

    a) the former ring-road was a hellish four-lane wide one-way stranglehold on the town centre. The traffic management must also be seen in connection with the planned Victoria Way link and other roads.

    b) the taming of Elwick Road will allow the development of the empty spaces south of the road (and on both side of the twelve railway tracks) as part of the expanded town centre.

    c) public art is a valid component of place-making especially if it bans-the-bland. Risky, yes, but people do actually refer to the roundabouts by the art eg the drover's, the tank, the coffins and, even, the bolt.

    Ashford has been trying to re-invent itself since being a market-town in name only.

    For further thoughts on the matter you might like to see...



  2. Thanks for your comments, Angus.

    If I have been a little overly critical of the scheme, it's because I'm passionate about the role shared space can play in improving the UK's public realm. Sadly the Ashford example, seems to be increasingly used as a stick with which beat the whole concept of shared space.

    Outside of this context, I do think it's an interesting and innovative piece of design. I'm also gald to hear that it is benefitting the centre of Ashford. For too long our towns and cities have been shaped primarily by the needs of cars and motorists.

    I actually think we need more art in our public spaces, and agree that it can help give identity to a place. But it looks to me like they've turned the public art up to 11 in Ashford!

  3. Lincoln's freemasons have recently decided they want a tank on one of their roundabouts. It seems reasonable that this subject should be open for public debate. There's an alternative peace monument proposal here.

  4. i cant help but notice how the design of the bricks on the floor around the bolt round about resemble that of a black sun symbol. I wonder how much esoteric origin is in our recently built architecture? i live in the flats opposite on the forth floor and walk the street every day. it's nice, but very very bright on a summers day due to the very light colours chosen.