Every now and again you have one of those life affirming days when you realize what life could be like if we lived under slightly different circumstances. I had just one of those days recently when I visited the residents of Beech Croft Road in North Oxford. I was on Beech Croft Road to witness the commencement of a new DIY street project. Initiated by local residents, and inspired and funded through Sustrans’ DIY Streets programme, the Beech Croft Road scheme has two broad goals: 1) to slow down traffic travelling along the road; 2) and to make the road a space that is shared between cars and the local community, and not simply given over to traffic movement functions.
On arrival, as a somewhat awkward stranger of the street, local residents immediately drew me into discussion about what was going on. It was assumed that I was a passing local, but when it emerged that I had travelled from Aberystwyth to see what was happening people seemed please that word of their project had spread so far. The road had been closed for the day to allow for two main activities.
First was the street transformation. The residents were trialling the introduction of a series of street objects that were designed to act as psychological prompts to change driver behaviour. The first of these was a psychological speed bump that was to be painted on the road. Based on an attractive geometric pattern that mirrored the Victorian paving that had been used on several properties of the street, the psychological speed bump took some careful planning by the residents, as they worked all day, and through the heat, to see it to completion. Other objects that were to be introduced included street planters and bike racks, that would be collectively used to break-up the linearity of the road and again slow traffic.
The second main activity of the day was the street party. This brought more residents to the street, partly to cast an eye over the new objects that had appeared on their road, but also to engage in a lively game of egg-flinging, a community barbeque, and to partake of the rapidly constructed cocktail bar.
The DIY Street initiative has been inspired by a series of community movements, planning philosophies and environmental concerns. These movements range from the community-based street reclamations instigated by City Repair in Portland, Oregon, to the “shared space” planning practices of the Dutch engineer Hans Monderman. What they have in common, however, is the realization that for too long our streets and roads have been designed with the dominant aim of facilitating efficient transportation and linear mobility. This process has had the twin effects of fragmenting communities whose only shared public space is a road; and of making roads less safe – as traffic speeds have increased along easy to navigate mono-functional highways.
DIY Streets encourages communities to take back some degree of ownership over their streets. It is not about banning cars, but about making drivers aware that roads have more than one function. Consequently, by introducing psychological speed bumps, street arches, and various local accoutrement, DIY practitioners attempt to de-homogenise roads: to provide them with a sense of territorial distinctiveness which speaks quietly in ear of the driver, saying, “people live on this street, people like me, with children and dogs and social lives, maybe I should slow down and display the same sort of respect for this place as I would show if I was visiting someone’s home.”
As I left Beech Croft Road, passing the signs that read “Road Closed” and “Play Street,” I was struck by an interesting revelation. I had only seen Beech Croft Road as a community space that was closed to traffic. I had assumed that perhaps this was just the type of place were everyone hung out and talked to each other; invited you into their gardens for a cup of tea; pooled their toys so that visiting children could play in the street. But perhaps such forms of community behaviour are just much easier to achieve when our streets slow down and become spaces of shared endeavour.