Cars pollute, and it is in cities that their effects are felt the most. Diesel particulates and other noxious chemicals are damaging to human health and reduce everybody’s quality of life.
Ghent is a mid-sized Belgian city with a population of around a quarter of a million. An important commercial centre during the Middle Ages, today it is a lively hub with a thriving music and arts scene. Environmentally, it also benefits from having several city farms and a cycling culture.
It is also home to a groundbreaking street-reclaiming program known as Leefstraat (Living Streets). This started in 2012, after the city asked its citizens to contribute visions for a sustainable future. Every year, streets or sections of streets in the inner-urban zone of Ghent volunteer to experience being traffic-free for about two months of the summer period. Starting with two streets in 2013, the project has gathered momentum, and by 2015, 22 streets were participating.
Residential streets that are normally lined with vehicles cease to be traffic routes, and turn into pop-up parks as the asphalt is covered over by an unrolled strip of astroturf. On this green canvas, the idea is for residents to create the street of their dreams. Typical features include picnic tables, outdoor communal dining, vegetation, bars, playgrounds, and space for children’s sporting activities.
With an absence of road safety hazards, children can play outside safely. For adults, Living Streets are spaces where social interaction can occur, resulting in residents meeting some of their neighbours for the first time. Another dimension is to buck global trends by slowing down the pace of life.
Citizens are encouraged to try other means of transport and shopping, such as electric bikes, cargo bikes, car-sharing, home deliveries, and buying from local retailers. Some residents were motivated to test being car-free by leaving their car some distance from home, on the other side of the city.
The driving force behind Living Streets is a multi-stakeholder network known as Lab of Troy. It views itself as a creative laboratory for urban solutions, and its goal is to demonstrate that deep structural changes are possible. Treating Living Streets as an experiment, the idea is for locals to experience living this way for a limited period in order to gauge whether a car-free street could work permanently. One of the two streets involved in the 2013 pilot program successfully applied to become pedestrian-only and also asked the city authorities for funding to install planters that now grow flowers and small trees.
In terms of the project’s downsides, one issue that arose was late-night noise from the street disturbing people in nearby homes, although this was quickly resolved. It is necessary to locate suitable car parking facilities nearby, and to handle deliveries, the needs of the disabled, and necessary vehicle transport linked to emergency vehicles.
As feedback comes in from what could be viewed as the street laboratories, the results have been relayed to the city authorities so that they can inform future street design policies. Living Streets is also part of Ghent’s transition to becoming a climate-neutral city.
In cities that are far less pedestrian-friendly than Ghent, another global event known as PARK(ing) Day involves occupying a parking spot (or two adjacent spots), but instead of leaving a vehicle there, to turn it into a pop-up experimental space. Sometimes this is an outdoor living area complete with a standard lamp, bookcase and sofa. Other ideas include transforming it into an open-air office, or a park with benches. Throughout the day, the parking spot’s meter is fed with a supply of coins.
This interesting social experiment was started in 2005 by the activist-oriented San Francisco art and design firm Rebar. As an annual event that takes place on the third Friday in September, PARK(ing) Day events have been held in recent years in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. While a few minor restrictions apply, such as a prohibition on commercial activity, you are generally allowed to do whatever you want with your few square metres of reclaimed asphalt.
Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore.
Living Streets: www.leefstraat.be/en/
PARK(ing) Day: www.parkingday.org
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