Literally translating to “streets to live in”, leefstraten are an example of a city street experiment wherein roadways are closed to traffic and parking and transformed places for congregating, socializing and playing.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of living streets in Ghent, Belgium, the birthplace of this concept. Interested in increasing sustainability and liveability in the city centre, the city of Ghent joined up with “Fiets van Troje” to develop the project ‘Leefstraat in 2050’. During the first year, two streets were transformed during the summer. Their success led to a gradual increase in the number of implemented streets: by 2021, nearly 100 streets have been temporarily transformed. The concept was further adapted to public squares, as 13 ‘leefpleinen’ were transformed in 2021.
How does it work?
As an example of a bottom-up initiative supported by the local government, the living street model represents a cooperation between residents, neighbourhood organizations, businesses and the city. Living streets are designed by residents, for residents. The City of Ghent takes on an administrative role, supporting the process and obtaining the necessary permits, street furniture and signs while the residents act as the initiators, deciding which activities will be organized. Perhaps the beauty of this model is that there is no one way to design a living street – as long as regulations are met, the organization of the living street is left to the wishes and willingness of the residents.
Why is it successful?
Ten years following the opening of the first living street, the idea has been copied and adapted not only in Ghent but in other European cities. Amsterdam has institutionalized the living street concept, while Rotterdam introduced vakantiestraten or vacation streets, a spin on the original concept and as a result of the pandemic. But what makes the living street so successful? According to the City of Ghent, benefits of the original living street experiment included increased social cohesion between residents, the creation of a small sharing economy amongst residents, small-scale improvements to mobility (i.e. decreased automobility and increased use of bicycles and walking), increased safety as a result of decreased automobility. For planners and policymakers, the opportunity to temporarily try out new street plans or sustainable activities proves invaluable. These benefits have been mirrored by other examples of living streets that have followed. While an extremely successful model of a city street experiment, living streets have also presented challenges. Organizing such an initiative takes a great deal of time and asks a lot of the organizers. Past examples have also revealed issues related to parking demands, vandalism, and noise.
Every summer since 2014 the Zalmstraat has been transformed into a living street. Flower boxes and green mats are scattered along this one-way residential street in the Heirnis neighbourhood. On top of four parking spaces in the middle of the street, several tables and benches have been placed on a terrace, while the green grass mats turn the street into one long playground for children. In the past, this street was completely closed to car traffic during certain hours of the week (e.g. weekends, Wednesday afternoons and evenings). This decision has been reversed and cars are allowed to drive through the street during the experiment. Nevertheless, residents feel that the mats automatically make cars drive slower. Similar to the Hugo de Grootkade in Amsterdam, a whole new dynamic has developed in the living street: children play together in the street, parents socialize, and residents are more interested in their street and neighbours.
Hugo de Grootkade, Amsterdam
The Hugo de Grootkade was the first "living street" experiment in Amsterdam, implemented in 2016. Total closure of the street for four weeks for car traffic and car parking in order to make room for social activities. A blue carpet was laid out, plants and toys were placed and even a hot tub was installed. Events were organized by the residents. Only emergency vehicles could have access in case of emergency. Residents noted an increase in social cohesion in the street. To this day, a Facebook group that was started at the beginning of the experiment remains actively used by residents. The experiment was repeated in 2017 due to its success in the first year.