Playing in the road

Road sign, Park Road, Radlett
Yesterday the suburban street outside our house was closed all day. It’s a busy road so the contrast with an ordinary day was pronounced – the silence lovely. We all rushed out into the street to enjoy the calm. Olly brought his scooter and raced down the hill (achieving some kind of scary, wobbly land speed record in the process), we tight-roped along the white line, played chicken with the absent trucks and 4x4s (we’ve done this before, actually) A holiday atmosphere arose.

After a while, as people realised what was going on, others sent their kids out with bikes and skates and footballs (and Heelys, natch). I crossed the road for no reason. And then back again. I chatted with neighbours I hardly ever talk to. Children I’ve never even seen emerged from houses only a few doors down. Gorblimey guv, it was like the 1950s.

I’ve said this before but I’m going to say it again anyway: the dominion of the car has made our streets and communities miserable, inward-looking places. Take the cars away, even if only for a day, and life returns. Yesterday, when the cars came back, all in a disappointing rush at about 5 O’Clock, the kids disappeared into their houses like mice into the skirting – in a blink they were gone, exiled from the street again. It was genuinely sad.

Jane Jacobs, humane urbanist, recorded variations in the rates of interaction amongst neighbours on opposite sides of the same street. Simplifying: the faster the traffic in your street, the less likely you are to cross the road to talk to the people who live there. Above a certain speed you’ll never bother. Slowing traffic, logically, increases interaction and, below a certain speed, you’ll be as friendly with opposite neighbours as you are with the ones on either side (your sociability may vary).

Here’s an article about shared streets, a successful Dutch way of making streets more friendly by, paradoxically, mixing up the cars and the people. Here are some more pics from our quiet day.