“Since streets are where most of our children are reared, and where most old people spend their lives, they are, outside the home, the most important part of our urban environment.”
Donald Appleyard, Livable Streets
Everyone knows the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child”. Until half a century ago, the street was where children played and neighbors met in cities and towns throughout the world. “Villagers” didn’t have to go out of their way to raise their neighbors’ child, it was integrated into the social and urban fabric of daily life. Neighborhood streets were safe places because there were always people out, neighbors inadvertently self-policing simply by sitting outside and chatting. The streets of the U.S. adequately served this function until the onslaught of the private car.
In his groundbreaking book Livable Streets, scholar Donald Appleyard demonstrated that as traffic increased, people knew fewer of their neighbors and used less of their street for socializing. Small streets discourage speeding and through-traffic with their design, and thereby free the street to reclaim its traditional role as playground and gathering place for residents.
The suburban cul-de-sac was the 20th century attempt to create a safe space for children to play in the street, and it did serve that purpose well. However, the side-effects included car dependency for all other activities, which only exacerbated the problem. Grandparents and other seniors past driving age were either isolated at home or shipped off to retirement communities, and parents of tweens were forced to play chauffeur between soccer matches and swim-meets. In contrast, small streets in a dense town or city environment provide all of one’s needs within walking distance. Kids can walk to school and activities, and the older folks are near services, parks, their grand-kids, and each other. The small street also cuts down significantly on walking distance by more efficiently and sustainably using space; the smaller the streets, the closer you are to where you are going.
One inspiring example comes from the community of Vauban, Germany, a suburb of Freiburg. Rather than ban cars on their streets, they simply didn’t provide any parking. This discourages car ownership, but allows for taxis, deliveries, and emergency vehicles. An unintended result was that the streets are now full of children. Vehicles can access the streets when needed, but the norm is that the streets are for people. By legalizing small streets here in the U.S., we can create family-centered sustainable communities where children, parents, grandparents, and all the other loved-ones in our lives can call home.