Rules of shared space

How we learn what to do from environmental cues

Urban planners and architects have branches that focus on improving shared space by focusing on human interaction rather than imposed rules. The Monderman Model, for example, focuses on the use of shared space between vehicles and pedestrians. Key to the shared spaces is the blurring of distinctions, in this case between the road and the pavement, prompting a more human interaction with risk. Modern ideas around urban planning remove warnings and place increasing responsibilities on the end user – the pedestrian.

One important human phenomenon is that of risk compensation and how the perceived risk of sharing a space with a car increases vigilance. This drives the change in behaviour that reduces accidents. Dr. Gerald Wildes’ data suggests that we actively manage our risk to increase our danger in environments we perceive to be safe – a theory known as “risk homeostasis” (2005).

Modern ideas around urban planning remove warnings and place increasing responsibilities on the end user – the pedestrian.

This also has profound implications for our virtual identities in an increasingly interconnected web where networks are largely open but held together by shared encounters. In my opinion, this is an area in which we have been slow to identify the risks. Facebook’s focus on connecting people, for instance, defaults to a shared space with optional privacy control, where norms such as picture tagging rely on social rules and ‘chatiquette’ to moderate and manage risk and exposure.

Broadcast systems like Twitter are by their nature open to everybody with the onus on the subscribers who collectively view and create shared space. One key component to Twitter’s idea of shared space is the knowledge that the Tweet I see is exactly the same as the Tweet another follower will see. As such they manifest as ‘shared encounters’ – helping to build community in the same way that soap operas fuel water cooler conversations.

The question is that, when trying to stay safe on the streets and on the web, where does the responsibility lie? I expect that online planning will follow the lead of urban planning, placing the responsibility largely with the end user. However, while urban planners and their models of interaction have been slow to develop, they are usually well researched and largely removed from vested interests. As Joel Balkan points out, the same cannot necessarily be said of businesses (2001).

I am less convinced that ideas of shared space are either well explained to the end user or that the risks are well understood. As the Internet acts increasingly as shared medium where participants are expected to manage their own risks, researchers and designers must be charged with responsible decision-making and with better signposting of these risks. Given the growth of customer understanding and the wealth of behavioural data now at the disposal of the modern marketer, it looks set to be a fine path to tread and one which businesses will need to have its moral compass set for.

Mindset reminder

  • As we share more space in our real and virtual worlds our attitude to others and risks needs to be increasingly taken into account
  • As understanding of customer behaviour and psychological triggers becomes more sophisticated, so must corporate responsibility


Balkan, J. (2005) The Corporation; The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. Robinson Publishing
Hans Monderman: ‘Project for public spaces’
Wilde, G. (2001) "Target Risk 2: A New Psychology of Safety and Health" Pdn pubns.


Ben Fehnert