Streets for People - A Radnor Coalition

In memoriam: Hans Monderman

On January 7, 2008, Hans Monderman, a world-renowned specialist in urban design, died at age 63. Although he had been fighting prostate cancer for a few years, his death was still a shock. As Ben Hamilton-Baillie, a fellow innovator — from the U.K. — who worked closely with Hans Monderman in the field of urban and traffic design, wrote on his Web site, “His death robs the world of an original and dedicated thinker and practitioner, whose observations on civility and the quality of life pointed towards a new generation of civilised streetscapes.”

Hans Monderman visited Radnor in 2005. He was nominated for the prestigious World Technology Award and he needed little convincing to stop over from his trip to San Francisco. He addressed an audience of citizens, police and township officials. Many came away impressed by this man from The Netherlands. He spoke in a kind and engaging way. He was passionate about solving the difficult challenges of designing our public space. Hans Monderman will be remembered by many in the field as the one who dared to think that we can work out our traffic problems as fellow citizens. “Design for negotiation” his approach has been called. Instead of making sure that cars and slower traffic meet as little as possible, he took away barriers and distracting signs and essentially invited drivers to become human again. He was famous for fearlessly stepping into traffic, explaining that cars can harm pedestrians, people don’t. I remember well how Hans walked onto Lancaster Avenue during morning rush hour to get a perspective of the road. When I warned him about the danger, he shrugged and said, “I am fine, I know what I am doing.”

Hans Monderman indeed knew what he was doing when he proposed to remove road signs, lines and fences, in his opinion all traffic-management tools that gave a false sense of security. When something looks dangerous, you pay attention. After convincing early skeptics, he managed to get traffic-safety statistics to support his approach. In the process of improving safety, his solutions often brought improvement in traffic flow as well.

Still, the traffic solutions, no matter how brilliant they often were, do not do full justice to the approach that Hans fine-tuned over the past decades. His philosophy was one of shared space. Instead of separating several functions in the public space, like mobility, meeting people, living and retail, he looked for ways to bring them together again. Granted, his approach is not possible everywhere, but his intentions to find ways to share our common space are truly revolutionary.

An essential element in his design approach was that everybody would be able to “read the road.” Safe and respectful behavior would be a no-brainer if roads were well designed for the intended purpose. In his opinion, speed bumps were nonsense. He knew that drivers would speed anyway and make a point of accelerating after each bump to communicate their disapproval. Hans was very amusing when he started his well-rehearsed rants against silly signs and “solutions.” I recall an anecdote that Hamilton-Baillie reported in an interview in The New York Times:

“Mr. Monderman drove him to a small country road with cows in every direction. Their presence was unnecessarily reinforced by a large, standard-issue European traffic sign with a picture of a cow on it. “He said, “What do you expect to find here? Wallabies?” Later, during his visit to Wayne, we walked through the town and I showed him School Lane, separated from the school by an ugly fence, with speeding cars trying to cut a traffic light and make up a few seconds. He grinned and started to relay some experiences he had had with schools and how he found solutions that respected all stakeholders.

Hans Monderman was not anti-car. He said so many times. He understood that the way we all designed our world in support of the car had caused our communities to deteriorate. He seemed to be driven by that concern. As he explained to me, the public space is where young people learn how to become citizens: how to interact and respect each other. His philosophy was about improving our quality of life. His presentations and discussions therefore were different from the often hostile traffic discussions that many of us have been a part of: speed bumps yes or no, loud signs stating “slow down.” In a civil world, what else would make sense? Big signs only offer distractions. A streetscape that signaled that a child could cross any second is far more effective to slow. “Does anyone drive 50 mph on a campsite?” Hans once remarked. He always had the bigger picture in mind. The people, the neighborhoods, communities, those were key. Traffic was a factor to manage. That meant that mobility needed to be secured as part of a solution that would be accepted by all.

I feel blessed to have met Hans Monderman and experience the kindness, humor and wisdom that he poured over problems that were often very contentious. He has made his mark in many places and I am confident that that will happen in many more in the future. I moved from Wayne around mid-2006, but I hope that some day soon I can come back to see Radnor be one of those places with Hans Monderman-inspired “civilised streetscapes.”

To get some sense of his legacy, a Google search for his name produces a number of obituaries and postings that recognize the stature of Hans Monderman among his peers. He is survived by his wife, Tineke, and two sons.

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