Wondering What You Can do to Make Your Street More Livable?

Make your street more livable. A review of David Engwicht’s, Street Reclaiming, by Tooker Gomberg, Toronto, Canada.

Street Reclaiming: Creating Livable Streets and Vibrant Communities
David Engwicht, Gabriola Island: New Society Press, 1999.

One of the great annoyances, and dangers, of city living is all that traffic. For most of my life I have been an autophobe, but felt kind of lonely. Every year things seem to get worse – more congestion, more noise, more roads and more traffic. Is this the inevitable march of progress? Can anything be done to break out of the cycle?

Street Reclaiming by David Engwicht shows us that there is indeed a way out of the mess. He believes that streets should not be giant machines for moving traffic. “For thousands of years streets have been the epicentre of the social, cultural and economic life of cities,” he says, but the heart of our cities has been stolen by traffic. After outlining the historic nature of streets, and illustrating how streets with less traffic are much more attractive, Engwicht walks the reader, step-by-step, on a revolutionary path, to transform the street in front of your home into an extension of your living room. As this is done, street by street, our cities will become healthy and lively again.

Engwicht has been pondering and working on traffic issues since 1987 when his neighbourhood in Brisbane, Australia, won a battle against a street widening, and in the process discovered how to make traffic slow down and even disappear.

From that experience he authored the landmark book Traffic Calming that helped start a movement for speed humps and road narrowings. But Engwicht now disavows that engineering approach. His goal is to inspire residents to take back their neighbourhoods, and transform space reclaimed from cars into play areas, neighbourhood cafes, outdoor stages, or telecommute centres.

Street Reclaiming is both visionary and practical. He maintains that traffic is “like an unwelcome guest that has barged into your private space. It is noisy, smelly, and intimidating.” The vision is to return streets to their historic role. Places where kids played and people ambled. Places for informal meeting and small-scale enterprise. Places with texture and colour, where the eccentric and the artist feel at home. Places for chatter, for laughter, where the elderly sit, and where individuals can all bring their gifts to the neighbourhood.

There are other books about the horrors of traffic that call for an alternative vision. But Engwicht’s book is unique in providing practical advice showing us how to get there from here.

In six weeks, through psychological reclaiming, you can have your street back by hanging banners and moving sofas out onto the sidewalk or the street, or kids could do chalk art and hopscotch in the street. If there are regularly such diverse and changing activities on the street, drivers will quickly learn to slow down for the unexpected.

Engwicht urges readers to get to know and educate their neighbours about traffic and street reclaiming, and then he suggests celebrating with street parties to get people excited about the possibilities. The next step is to sign a treaty with another street – we’ll drive less, and slow down on your street if you do the same on our street.

But one is left wondering: can his Traffic Reduction Treaty scheme work?

Engwicht notes the way society has fundamentally changed its attitude to garbage and recycling, and maintains that reducing traffic is as easy as reducing trash. In fact, he has developed his own set of five basic rules for traffic reduction. By grouping trips, establishing car-share clubs, walking to school, and replacing some trips with walking, transit, bicycling, and home and office delivery depots, Engwicht claims that traffic could be cut in half. Once the traffic is eliminated the street can be transformed into space for spontaneous exchange: cultural, social and economic. To “build a humane, compassionate city, the return of the spontaneous realm to our streets is the first step,” he writes.

For those weary of the slow pace of change, Engwicht shows that cultural change can happen very quickly – not through one convert at a time, but by identifying existing cultural values, like safety and community, and celebrating them.

Street Reclaiming is a pleasant book to read or just to flip through. There are oodles of line drawings penned by Engwicht himself, and loads of interesting quotations such as this one from Roberta Brandes Gratz’ book The Living City: “The street, in fact, is the most important thread in a city’s fabric. It knits the city together as a city. To kiss the street goodbye is the kiss of death for a city.” We would do well to follow Engwicht and hug our streets back to life.