Think of him as the Patch Adams of traffic planning, a man who helps communities heal themselves through the double-barrel action of humor and everyday human activities that reclaim community streets from the negative impacts of the automobile. Australian author and international traffic expert David Engwicht was in Missoula last week demonstrating to city officials, planners and residents alike that the solutions to excessive traffic and speed need not come from costly and time-consuming traffic studies, cluttered signage, street redesigns or speed bumps. Instead, he says, it’s simply a matter of changing the psychology about how we use our physical spaces.
“One of the secrets of street reclaiming, which I feel is a quantum leap beyond traffic calming, is that your streets should be ever-changing and humanized,” says Engwicht. “What has happened is that as we have slowly retreated from the streets, it has exerted a psychological influence over how we use them.”
Engwicht’s visit and workshop, sponsored by the Missoula Ravalli Transportation Management Association, Adventure Cycling, the Office of Planning and Grants, AERO and Free Cycles, is part of a North American tour designed to help communities move “beyond traffic calming.” His visit culminated in a block party Sunday in the Slant Street neighborhood that featured chalk street drawings, potluck food tables and a general carnival-like atmosphere not only encouraged community interaction, but moved people back into their streets and slowed traffic down.
Modern North American and Australian streets, says Engwicht, are designed almost entirely like corridors, as opposed to ancient cities, where the streets were more like “interconnected outdoor living rooms.” Whereas corridors tell people that they should be moving through quickly, Engwicht says, “the message of a room is that you are a guest in the room, and there are things to be enjoyed in that space.”
The tools to create that “living room” atmosphere can be both simple and humorous. For example, Engwicht eschews official signage, opting instead for creative, colorful and fun methods that both catch a driver’s eye and ease his foot off the gas pedal: A cardboard cutout of a child on the sidewalk with a kickball glued to his foot that looks like it’s about to roll into the street, a child stroller parked on either side of the street where residents regularly cross. Engwicht says that even a bridge table, a flag hanging from a tree or a couch on the corner can be enough to create the impression that this is an area where spontaneous human exchanges take place.
“There are a lot of humorous, humanizing ways of doing this,” says Engwicht, “without going to City Hall or putting the responsibility on someone else. We all have to recognize our role in the problem, and the solutions.”