Blog by Dirk Holemans: “Imagine: an urban politician wants to insist that some streets become car-free during summer. Even if there are good reasons – better air quality, kids get room to play – the result is quite predictable. The residents of those designated streets would revolt, for different reasons. Some would feel ignored as citizens, others would stand by their right to drive their car to their door, etc. Result: the politician has to withdraw the proposal, disappointed by these negative reactions. So, the gap between politics and people widens further.
But what happens if an independent network of collaborating citizens, businesses and local organisations, supported by the city government, develops a positive narrative for the idea of a Living Street? If they emphasise that a Living Street will be the sustainable place that inhabitants have always dreamed of? What if they offer people who are interested and want to test the idea on their street the possibility to do just that, if they can convince their neighbours to support this potentially great idea? In the city of Ghent we know the answer to this question. Since 2013, in the summer several streets have been transformed into car-free ‘places’ for the community, creating room for picnic benches, playgrounds for children, etc.
The Living Streets is not a top-down project, nor a bottom-up citizens’ initiative. It’s a form of co-creation between residents, the city and other organisations. Residents join forces, get to know each other better and go to work on the challenges of their street (more meeting space, isolation of older residents, traffic, unsafe street layout etc). For the city government, Living Streets are a testing ground for parking solutions, street furniture and the search for new forms of resident participation. The civil servants also roll up their sleeves. They seek solutions, help mediate in conflicts, make their expertise available and translate experiences into new policies.
Living Streets are one of the examples of how the city of Ghent, just as other cities like Bologna and Barcelona, is changing the traditional top-down politics of our modern society. In the latter approach, the provision of services, the introduction of innovations or management of resources, tend to be presented as a stark choice between state organisations or market mechanisms. This binary division ignores a crucial third possibility – that of interventions by autonomous citizens – and underestimates the many possibilities of citizens and (local) authorities working together….(More)”.