I have recently joined a growing worldwide initiative to reclaim neighborhood streets from the automobile. It's a movement driven both by climate change activists seeking to reduce carbon emissions - and by social change advocates seeking to reverse the steep drop-off in civic engagement. The alienation stemming from declining involvement in both informal neighborhood activity and formal community organizations has both health and political consequences.
The link with the growing epidemic of depression is obvious (see http://stuartbramhall.aegauthorblogs.com/2010/05/22/civic-engagement-the-effect-on-the-human-brain/). However there is also substantial research evidence that loneliness and alienation also increase a person's risk of contracting other, more serious conditions, including heart disease, stroke, infectious and autoimmune disease and cancer.
As an activist, I'm even more concerned about the political consequences of the profound apathy stemming from the isolated, compartmentalized lives we lead - a sense that ordinary people are totally powerless to improve the conditions we live and work in. The pervasiveness of these feelings pose a major stumbling block for organizers seeking to build collective opposition to the corporate takeover of government.
Because of its immediate change effect, street reclaiming is extremely effective for inspiring optimism about political change. It encourages ordinary citizens to see themselves as change agents, rather than looking to uncooperative and/or corrupt political leaders to make changes on their behalf. As such it provides an extremely valuable model for other types of social and political change.
An Inspirational Social Change Model
David Engwicht, an Australian social inventor who consults with town planners and social engineers worldwide about traffic calming measures, is the author of a fascinating and inspiring street reclaiming primer called Mental Speed Bumps: A Smarter Way to Tame Traffic. As well as explaining his revolutionary bottom-up approach to to traffic calming, it also suggests dozens of activities people can undertake with their neighbors to reclaim their streets as social and civic spaces.
Disadvantages of Top-Down Traffic Calming
Engwicht feels most city planners and engineers approach traffic calming from the wrong angle. As he observes, they typically install "traffic calming" measures after a pedestrian or cyclist is killed by a motorist who is driving too fast. The most common are speed bumps or devices such curb extensions, chicanes, or traffic circles, which slow traffic by narrowing the street. After observing and advising street reclaiming projects all over the world, he has concluded that the most effective traffic calming measures are those residents of any given street initiate themselves.In fact Mental Speed Bumps goes back to first principles in approaching street reclaiming and traffic calming. Engwicht points out that pedestrian safety only becomes an issue when city and town officials attempt to artificially divide cities into "traffic worlds" and "social worlds." A "traffic world" runs smoothly when everything is predictable, uniform and highly governed by rules and regulations. He gives the example of a controlled superhighway, where drivers can safely go 65 miles per hour or faster because they are absolutely confident of not encountering slower moving cyclists or pedestrians.
He then outlines how this level of predictability is virtually impossible in towns and cities, which historically have always been social spaces. In fact, installing more signs and speed bumps and passing more rules and regulations only lures motorists into a false sense of security, leading them to drive at unsafe speeds.
According to Engwicht, it makes far more sense for neighborhoods to redesign their streets as shared space both people and vehicles can safely enjoy. For this type of traffic calming to be fully effective, he stresses that residents themselves must take the initiative, rather than lobbying city officials to do it for them.
Moving Away from the Culture of Blame
In fact Engwicht views traffic noise, congestion, and safety issues social problems, rather than design problems. Instead of looking to local government to solve them, we need to see it as a social and community problem we all play some role in creating.
Up until now we have all approached traffic issues with the idea that someone else is to blame for them - either city officials or drivers from other neighborhoods. According to Engwicht, this is typical of the "culture of blame" mentality prevalent in modern society. When people actually sit down and analyze the source of all the vehicles on their street, they usually discover that the neighborhood is responsible for about one third of the traffic.
Thus his first suggestion for neighborhood traffic calming is for neighbors to commit to reducing their own car use (by walking or cycling for short trips). His second is for people to take steps towards transforming their neighborhood into a "living room" (a shared social space), instead of a "corridor" to get to someplace else.
The "Living Room" Analogy
He stresses this is something neighborhoods can start to do on their own by following two broad principles: 1) deliberately blurring the boundary between private and public space, as many European countries (particularly Holland) do; and 2) using intrigue, uncertainty, and humor as mental speed bumps. As Engwicht has repeatedly observed, the moment drivers note social activity on a street, it introduces intrigue and uncertainty and they automatically drive more slowly.