The living street

What if today you could see what your street will look like in 2050? Daniela Stoycheva takes a peek into the future.

In 2012, a group of 25 volunteer ‘front runners’ from the Ghent Climate Alliance (Gents Klimaatverbond), all with divergent backgrounds, came together into a so-called ‘transition arena’. Thanks to the INTERREG IVB NWE project Music (Mitigation in Urban Areas- Solutions for Innovative Cities) they were given the assignment to sketch out what they envisaged to be mobility in Ghent by 2050.

For five nights, the group was offered by the city of Ghent the necessary time and room to analyse the current mobility system, find out its possible flaws and work out a joint sustainable future scenario consisting of iconic projects. The proposed solutions were put together in “The Bike of Troy”.

In the beginning of November 2012 these 25 members of the transition arena presented their projects in front of 100 other citizens. One of these projects was the “Living Street”. The city architect Koen Stuyven challenged current perceptions and realities suggesting leaving cars out of the mindset, trying to make people think out of the box. What if in 2050 there are no cars around and city architects look back to 2012 and laugh at our plans for cars?

The vision for 2050 was of liveable streets constituting a network of car-free zones concentrated around central squares. Strong public transport, the bicycle, car-pooling systems and alternative transport have sharply reduced the number of cars on the roads. Streets not leading anywhere for through traffic are now “pedestrian only”. Parking a car in front of your door is only needed in case there is something to load or unload. Children can come out safely on the street and more meeting space leads to new interaction at street level. Street life becomes more intense and a more cohesive bond is forged between neighbours. Within a walking distance there is access to a rapid transit bicycle network, a centrally located public transit stop, or one of the many ‘short-cuts’ that will quickly take you to your destination even on foot.

However, those present at the meeting decided that they did not want to wait until 2050 to see this street becoming a reality. Around 20 citizens from five different streets started thinking about how they could accomplish this in Ghent now.

Making the ‘Living Street’ alive

Two roads in Ghent showed readiness to be the test streets of the initiative for the month of June 2013 – Pussemierstraat and Karel Antheunisstraat. The project was presented to all citizens on the streets by the volunteers. Neighbours would gather in a living room and make the whole street enthusiastic about the idea. Three goals were set for the project:

–         experiment with sustainable mobility

–         create another approach to public space

–         create social interaction between the inhabitants

The idea was to organise something very local, neighbourhood-based, on a small scale, and not big crowds in the centre. The activities were not organised in advance, they would just happen spontaneously. An article in a national newspaper about the project made the idea popular among sponsors who themselves started contacting the volunteers. A large network of sponsors who participated with cash donations was created, with the money used to buy a green carpet, barbecue, benches, etc., with sponsor materials, such as electric and cargo bikes, with checks for the public transport and taxis to use these means of transport instead of the private car and create sustainable mobility. People started experimenting and trying out new things on their living street. Coming back home, they would gather on the street, have a chat and relax, play music, read books, the children would play games, and ultimately create a social space instead of locking themselves inside their homes.

The role of the city of Ghent

The ‘Living Street’ is a bottom-up initiative by the volunteers from “The Bike of Troy” network together with the inhabitants of the streets. It is an ownership of the citizens, not a project of the city administration. The city of Ghent wanted to create with the ‘Living Street’ a product people would identify with. The most important role of the city was to create this experimental space and let it happen. Ghent city administration wanted to start this as a temporary approach, which step-by-step would motivate behaviour change and transform into something permanent. Imposing a permanent vision on the citizens from the outset would be difficult to accept and would not lead to the same enthusiasm.

Two departments from the city administration were involved in the project – the department of environment and the mobility department. The partnership with the city helped the volunteers to organise meetings with the police, garbage collection companies, etc. and obtain permits for closing the streets. The city’s role was restricted to only creating the framework for the realization of the idea.

The legacy of the experiment

Pussemiersstraat has become significantly greener. Neighbours on the street changed the façade of their houses by submitting a common application to the city administration for funding for planting plants in front of their houses. The political consent of the city councillor for mobility was gained to make Pussemierstraat a permanent living street. More than any tangible legacy, the mindset of the people changed proving that a change in mobility behaviour is possible already today. Citizens lived through the process, taking part in every step of it and had thus time to take account of it.

Evaluation of this first edition was made by the volunteers of the Troyan Bike-network together with the city administration and VITO (Flemish institution of Technologic Research). It will be distributed to all partners involved in the project. A second edition of the “Living Street” is planned in spring 2014. The intention for this new edition is to upscale the concept so that more streets participate. A new, economy-related approach will be tested in 2014.  The idea behind it is to create proximity of the food to the people living on the street and try a different kind of shopping than the type we are used to. Instead of making many individual trips to the shop, citizens will make only few big trips that would deliver the food to a close-by depot. This would be a common depot somewhere close to the street where companies would store food and people would go and collect it by bike or on foot.

An overall objective of the project is to create a network of ‘living streets’ connected together in the transition arena. The ultimate goal of the project is to see how the city reacts to it, how people more widely react to it, how one can organize it and hopefully when seeing that, the government will absorb these ideas in their policies.

So does your city want to follow in the footsteps of Ghent?

FYI
Daniela Stoycheva is a project co-ordinator at Polis (dstoycheva@polisnetwork.eu)

Special thanks to Mr Dries Gysels from the Department of Environment, city of Ghent, Mr Tim Scheirs from the Mobility Department, city of Ghent, and Karel Vancoppenolle, volunteer who started the ‘Living Street’ experiment for providing valuable information for this article.

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