ON A RECENT VISIT TO NEW YORK, I stood in front of a Brooklyn subway station about 40 minutes from Manhattan, looking at an empty, grubby triangle of pavement on the corner of a busy intersection. I was met there by an enthusiastic young dad and his child in a pram.
Rudy Delson is part of a local community group that a year before had applied to the New York City Council to turn this underused patch of land into the Parkside Plaza. He worked with council to plan its transformation into an area he hopes will make the street a meeting place and an area about which to be proud.
Rudy was excited that this day had finally arrived. The New York City Council’s transport department delivered planter boxes, tables and chairs and umbrellas — simple and effective tools to turn this dead zone dominated by traffic into a neighbourhood hub for conversation and events.
Over the next few hours the transformation was completed. It became the latest in a program that has created more than 20 new neighbourhood plazas in the past few years. The program is driven by a goal to ensure that all New Yorkers live within a 10-minute walk of quality open space.
I love the simplicity of the neighbourhood plaza program and the role the community plays in it. The council only sets up a plaza if communities apply and set out how they will play a role in maintaining it.
There are no complicated designs or major infrastructure changes to slow progress down. The council closes a few parking spots or a traffic lane to create the plaza within hours, with a lick of paint, some planter boxes, tables and chairs. It makes the transition quick and affordable.
While visiting New York I also learned about another program called Neighbourhood Slow Zones. This is a community-based program that reduces the speed limit to 30km/h and adds safety measures to change driver behaviour and lower the frequency and severity of crashes.
The Slow Zones program enhances quality of life in neighbourhood streets by reducing “rat-run” traffic and noise in residential neighbourhoods.
It aims to see an increase in activity with parents more confident to let kids walk to school and parks. Importantly, the Slow Zones are created in response to applications made by communities and are considered seriously and transparently.
In New York the council is working to give the community more say and involvement in their local streets. This is something we can and should do in Hobart to create safer, more community focused and more economically vibrant neighbourhoods.
There’s a quiet revolution happening around the world driven by a movement to rethink how we regard urban spaces — that streets are for living in, not just driving along.
City councils from San Francisco to Vienna to Melbourne are recognising that the city designed only with cars in mind is not a particularly livable, sustainable or appealing city.
Walkable neighbourhoods and cities are healthier, more connected, economically vibrant and safer communities.
Streets designed to slow car speeds and provide people with appealing places to stop and sit, become places where people interact with their neighbours, stay longer and spend money.
City governments are looking at evidence-based research that shows streets are safer and more economically vibrant when they are designed around the needs of people and the community, not just cars and traffic flow.
Transport department engineers are being challenged to stop planning streets in the narrow context of traffic corridors. The practice of developing transport plans through the prism of the car has overlooked the value of creating strong livable streets and public places, and for communities to have a say in the planning of their thoroughfares.
In New York’s famous Union Square, a street makeover added width to footpaths, a bike lane, planter boxes and an upgraded pedestrian crossing.
These changes were monitored by the transport department, which found decreases in both speeding and shop vacancies.
Another transformation of a few parking spaces in Brooklyn into a mini plaza with plants and street furniture led to a 170 per cent increase in retail sales in the nearby businesses.
This year, Hobart City Council agreed to undertake work to revamp some of our local shopping areas, after a decade or more of neglect.
Our local shopping hubs in Lenah Valley, New Town, Sandy Bay and North, West and South Hobart deserve a bit of council’s attention.
There’s a world of difference between New York and Hobart, but there is something universal about wanting a welcoming neighbourhood street you can walk around and feel connected. These are the places we live near, see every day, identify with, and where we know people and the local businesses who work there.
I look forward to the next years as Hobart City Council works with our communities to create exciting, sustainable streets for our city.