Do Roundabouts Need Landscape Architects?
In the past decade or two, roundabouts have become a wide-spread phenomenon in Europe, bringing with them a series of issues, above all related to their number, location, and the ornamental structures placed in their centres.
For these reasons, I organized a symposium about this phenomenon at the Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The programme comprised of mostly local experts from the fields of social sciences and spatial planning (see the list of speakers at the bottom of this text). We questioned the quantity and placement of roundabouts in regards to the spatial and societal context, as well as the decor in roundabout centres. I was hoping some guidelines would surface, telling us how and what to think when we deal with roundabouts as landscape architects.
Key Facts and Issues
Normal crossroads have 32 risk spots for car accidents, while roundabouts have 8. However, in some cases, it is reported that pedestrians have a higher risk of being hit by a car than at a normal crosswalk. Due to its shape, roundabouts are more demanding for pedestrians, since they have to walk a further distance compared to a normal crosswalk.
Roundabouts are eco-friendlier in the short-term in comparison to normal crossroads, since vehicles do not need to stop so often (car emissions are at their peak when the vehicle is gaining speed from 0kph). However, sociologist Aidan Cerar stressed that, in the long-term, whereas they improve the conditions for road-based traffic, we should be improving conditions for trains, which are in terms of environmental impact far friendlier.
Roundabouts improve traffic flow significantly. However, Cerar further emphasised that traffic flow improved by roundabouts will only invite more cars long-term, which may result in the same traffic jams over time, only with more cars.
Very few roundabouts are accessible for pedestrians and only a very small percentage offer any meaningful programme in their centres. If they are not publicly accessible, are they really public spaces? If we want to improve public spaces by also including objects of visual culture, should we not focus on accessible pedestrian spaces where people can meet, hang out and interact, rather than focus on spaces dedicated to cars where people drive by in seconds?
The objects inserted in the roundabout centres appear in a great variety of typologies: sculptures, branding, memorabilia, models of local amenities concerning cultural heritage, ornamental vegetation, etc. These circular spaces attract meaning and symbolic value due to both the standardized nature of roundabouts as infrastructural elements and their centres as a programme-free left-over space. It also lies in the focal point of the roads leading to the roundabout, which adds to the monumentality of the object placed on that particular spot.
images below: © Tomaž Tollazzi
In most cases, one doesn’t need to be an expert to recognize these objects as kitsch – a decor sending out sometimes naive or unclear messages. Sculptures and other objects placed in roundabouts end up surrounded by traffic signalization that are usually strong in colour. The result is an untamed mixture of colours, shapes and messages.
In my opinion, the decor in roundabouts might also be caused by suburban sprawl, sameness that lacks character, sense of place. In such environments, these decorations are unsuccessfully acting as symbols of identification and obviously much-needed landmarks. Landscape architects can definitely help resolve this particular issue on a larger scale.
The decor tells of many searches for identities, which are, sadly, projected onto places people drive by instantly, like something people scroll through on social media. Meaningful places should underscore meeting and interacting, and not merely show -off.
The main questions that speakers emphasized largely referred to the nature of the procedures and processes that lead to the placements of these objects in roundabouts. Mayors build them because they are not too expensive, they are seen by all, and building them gives the impression of a hard-working administration, especially in times before elections. But even the mayors are quietly aware of the problematic nature of placing objects in roundabouts, so they often find sponsors – private money – to fund them.
Miguel Alvarez Martinez from Nacion Rotonda stressed that in Spain, ‘artworks’ placed in roundabouts open opportunities for corruption, because art can be highly priced and then bought with public money under the pretense of improving the quality of public space.
Art historian Beti Žerovc pointed out an example near Bled, Slovenia, where a memorial to Slovenian Polka musicians the Avsenik Brothers was placed in a local roundabout. The author is a local designer (not architect), and the result a kind of (post)modern sculpture that neither resonates well with the community of polka culture nor with the rest of the public. So if nobody likes it (ironically, precisely because it was designed in a way that everyone should like it), who is it then for?
Monument to Avsenik brothers, roundabout near Bled, Slovenia © Jaka Babnik
Key Finding and Guidelines
Long-term, roundabouts are not the most sustainable solution. With or without decorations, they support car-based society and they don’t add to the quality of pedestrian spaces.
In most cases, sculptures and objects are being placed in roundabouts without a proper public discussion. One suggested solution would be to improve regulations and include a competition stage. Furthermore, initiatives for development of roundabouts should be legally obliged to focus more on participatory approaches; publish a pre-set minimum number of articles about the intervention in local newspapers or radio stations. One public presentation or workshop should also be dedicated to each such intervention months before planned construction.
Another suggestion was to make an online platform that would deal with the issue, offer public discussion, and promote multidisciplinary discussion about roundabouts. The symposium’s website krozisca.si (in Slovenian) is in the making and has such aspirations.
Many of us wish for all these horrible installations inside roundabouts to never happen. On the other hand, they are sometimes well accepted by the local communities regardless of how they look. Accordingly, if people really do want roundabouts to become their local landmarks, I think these objects should be financed with public money. In that case it would be easier to regulate them and develop more democratic and inclusive processes, probably resulting in better designs.
Needless to say, landscape architects have the knowledge to place, communicate, and design roundabouts with all these issues in mind. Regulations vary from country to country, but considering the results, we should be more involved.
A couple of Slovenian examples, all photos by Jaka Babnik, project Top Location (2017)
This article is based on the contributions by speakers at The Symposium About Roundabouts that was organized on October 23rd in the auditorium of the Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana. Participating speakers were: landscape architects Ana Kučan and Darja Matjašec, art historian Beti Žerovc, curator Goran Milovanović, artist Zoran Srdić, architect and curator Matevž Čelik, Chief architect of Ljubljana Janez Koželj, sociologist Aidan Cerar, sociologist and politician Pavel Gantar, traffic experts Tomaž Tollazzi and Miguel Álvarez Martínez, philosopher Mateja Kurir and authors of the Top Location project, photographer Jaka Babnik and curator Miha Colner.
Published on February 12, 2019