Living Streets: experimenting with the city of tomorrow?

“Local authorities are no longer perceived as the only party expected to solve complex issues in cities” (source)

This post follows a conversation between Pieter Deschamps ( and @Noemi and aims to provide ideas about effective urban mobilization and partnership building between cities and citizens.

Living Streets is a project in Ghent, Belgium, where neighbors collaborate to temporarily redesign their streets for a couple of months, when neighborhood parking areas are marked down away from the street. You would see safe playgrounds built, or new green meeting spaces, or social, communal activities. A flagship project of the Trojan Lab non-profit, it went on for 4 years now, involving more than 25 streets, but as an experiment, it also had an expiration date: the end of 2017. An experiment as it was, its eyes were always on the prize: exploring a new approach of public space, finding alternatives for street parking and reworking people’s relationship with city officials.

The story begins with the city administration itself: in 2011 it was part of a European program about the transition to a climate neutral city. The result was that we should rethink the mobility system in order to become climate neutral. Beginning of 2012, the city of Ghent started a transition arena. Pieter was one of the 20 people involved in this arena, as he used to work for the National Railway Company and involved in sustainable mobility development. These 20 people were brought together, and had the opportunity to be critical on the current system but also had the power of imagining a future vision, how it could be better.

In this process, after six months, the arena developed a transition agenda for sustainable mobility in Ghent, where a couple of critical choices were identified, that needed to be made to achieve that vision. “Hard choices” they called them: two of them were the basis for the Living Street project. So:

  1. The arena had the vision

2) They determined some critical hard choices, policy making decisions

3) At that point the arena had developed about 10 ideas for how this can be put in practice. Living Streets was one of these ideas.

Pieter: “After 6 months we pitched these ideas and while the city’s work was done at the time, we didn’t feel we were done. I will always remember that night. These 20 people sat in a bar and said “how can we make our ideas real”. That’s how it all started.”

The group didn’t have a status at the time, they weren’t the government neither a NGO. It was just a group of people that went on and organized in 2013 the first Living Streets in 2 streets. The city of Ghent helped by giving the permission to experiment with a new kind of street.

Pieter: “We evaluated it with the city administration and wanted to carry on. We needed a legal status for two reasons: first, to be legally covered when things go wrong, and be able to protect ourselves and the project. A second is that we were starting to work with money, we had private sponsors and companies saying they were interested in what we are trying to discover. We organized an NGO, very close to the city organisation, because we wanted to change the system.”

The mission of that NGO (The Trojan Lab) was - within the timeframe of 5 years, and importantly, in between 2 elections - organizing as many as possible experiments and gather lessons, see what dynamics all this can start. We’ll stop before the elections to make sure that every political group has the possibility to take the lessons and translate them into the government system.

Where the project is today

The Living Street experiment has 3 strategic goals:

  1. How can we evolve from street park to neighborhood parking?

2) How can we turn grey streets to more lively/colorful streets?

3) If we create spaces on street level where people can meet each other and come together in a peaceful way, will this strengthen social cohesion in the neighborhood?

Evaluation was in-built, it had to do with the process of arriving at a Living Street.

Pieter: “We started engaging people with the question “What if?”; mapping the ideas and also the interests of people. “How do I look at my neighborhood?” from the perspective of social security, traffic, safety, more green in the streets,… For each remark we mobilize our network and creativity to support initiators from each street to find solutions. After that process is done, the people come up with a vision for their living street, that will be implemented in practice. Evaluation is an ongoing process, so things can be changed during it.”

The project is driven by the communities in the city. The Trojan Lab started the mapping and year after year new people were interested to help and lead the process, or involve others. The quality check was always done by the organization.

Pieter: “In terms of social cohesion, it’s crystal clear after 51 Living Street-processes in Ghent, we created a new space at street level that improves relations between residents, between the city government and his residents and we discovered innovative solutions to redesign the street and park the car at a neighborhood parking.

What next?

The Trojan Lab and the volunteers from the Living streets are now helping the local government to think about and rethink how Living Streets would look like without the role of the Trojan Lab. What’s in it for the city administration: it involves bringing different public stakeholders together with those who have participated from the streets, to think how it can continue in the upcoming years. Are you also dreaming of a living street? Share your stories with the pioneers of Ghent.


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What a story!

Welcome, @Living_Streets ! This is very inspiring.

One part of the story I don’t understand is: where does the transformative muscle come from? The arena you describe was made of 20 people. That’s not a large number, certainly not large enough, in and of itself, to secure legitimacy. And yet, you guys were able to wield real influence, with the city giving you permission to try things out. How did this happen? Did you have a “bureaucrat hacker” in the administration championing you?

I suppose you needed some financial support to get the Living Street experiment going. Evaluation is a particularly hard task to get people to do as voluntary work. Where did that come from?

Were you aware of the Social Street experiences in Italy?

And finally, there is a sentence in the post I don’t understand:

1) How can we evolve from street park to neighborhood parking?

What is “neighborhood parking”? Can you please explain?

Also ping @Rossana_Torri and @Erika_Lazzarino , who might be interested in this story.

Good morning @Alberto ,

Good evening @Alberto ,

We started indeed with a small group of people. The city of Ghent used the theory of transition management to create a strong group (“arena”) to start reflecting on the future. We explained this in this article:  (page 24)

The city of Ghent (thanks to the European MUSIC-project) coördinated the first year of thinking, dreaming and creating a strong group (see also . Then the group organised themselves, with sponsorship money and a lot of volunteer time of the pioneers of the first hour.

The Living street experiment evolved from 2 streets during 1 month in 2013 to more than 30 streets during sometimes 2,5 months the last years. Each edition the evaluation is done through collaboration between the residents in the street,

“From streetparking to neighborhood parking”: if we want to create free spaces in streets we have to find solutions for the parked cars in the street. When experimenting with Living street the initiators have to find appropriate places for their cars to park. Not just ‘around the corner’. We look for under-used parking spaces at shops, companies, railwaystations, … This can be in the neighborhood or even more remote at ‘long distance parkings’. Each time citizens (on a volunteering basis) test this new way of parking and are supported by our network through (e)-bikes, bus/tramtickets, … The insights and experience we gain here are used by the local city administration.

Social streets: We heard about social streets not long ago via Giulia Ganugi. She’s a PhD student Sociology in Bologna. Her research is about the Social Street phenomenon, born in Bologna three years ago and spreaded throughout Italy and the world. She visited us in Ghent to know more about the Living Street-experiment.

We also like to add the link to our newspaper:  

Kind regards,

Pieter and Dries from Ghent

@Rossana Torri  and @Erika Lazzarino

I get it

Thanks @Living_Streets aka Pieter and Dries. I think I get it now. I also understand the reference to parking: of course cars are a very un-social technology, but since they are so pervasive you need to find a way to get rid of them before you can even start playing around with streets as public spaces.

I really liked the DRIFT Transition Management Handbook. The approach resonates deeply with our own:

Transition management does not seek to involve stakeholders or to represent a given population; it focuses on selecting change agents. However, any concept of selective involvement comes with tensions. For example, doubts can surface regarding democratic legitimacy. Making clear that transition management is not a decision-making process can assuage these: it creates a setting for mutual inspiration among societal actors, in which new ideas, connections, and actions can emerge. 

We also like to approach change as something that is not decision making. I in particular use a lot of biology-derived metaphors, like evolution or adaptation – we discussed this at length with your fellow Ghentian @WinniePoncelet . It’s a very fresh way of looking at social processes. But 99% of people I talked to find it counterintuitive, even disturbing. So, congrats on bold thinking!

I am sure @Noemi and our colleagues over at the Future Makers prototype will love it too. Ping @mariam1313 | @Tinatin | @Max_Perry | @gazbia-sorour . Maybe we could collaborate a bit?

Connection with FutureMakers

I could see early on how Pieter and Dries’s experience connects with what UNDP are trying to do in FutureMakers - approaching cities and public spaces as experiments where communities could bring their contribution at the decision making table. Not as a “stakeholder”, but as a dynamic conversation partner.

It falls on me to follow up with a proposal for collaboration to our friends in Ghent and the UNDP teams - definitely kickstarted by sharing this kind of knowledge. Proposal incoming later this week!

Hi living_streets, thanks for sharing.

A few comments, observations, questions:

You speak about lively, colorful streets. Most cities are lively, and colorful by definition. Think of people from all around the world, graffiti, street art, and much more. It is mostly the poor neighborhoods that are “lively and colorful”. What I can’t find in your description is the issue of social justice, of human dignity, of autonomy. Getting to know one’s neighbors is nice, but it is not about what we do in our free time, it is about how we work together to live a life in dignity.

Personally, I wonder how a middle class project like this might undermine the trust of the wider (poorer) community in the ability of actually working together across class (‘race’, gender, sexuality, etc.).

Thanks @living_streets for sharing this, and in particular for stewarding a project that straddles social and governmental systems!

Having been involved in aligned movements but more so in North America and Australia, there’s a lot that comes to mind on reading this post. So the first thing is to check if you’re aware of “tactical urbanism” and its approaches, as to my understanding this is one of the earliest iterations of community-led placemaking and has plenty of useful tools that could allow you to expand involvement in this project to broader collaborators if you wanted that…?

As I’m sure you’re aware, there’s an abundance of this kind of placemaking happening across the US and Canada and if you’re not already across organizations like the Project for Public Spaces, it’s an absolute must. The Cities for People initiative in Canada is also super interesting. (My apologies if I’m sharing the obvious… I have plenty more references if you want them just hit me up).

Recently, I’ve been involved in some community consulting as a part of a new project that’s bringing together diverse collaborators in Montreal’s community development. It’s called the Listening Platform and is trying to address the way in which we listen and weave together to the abundance of voices involved in a cities evolution. I think it could be an interesting reference as Living Streets grows. One reason in particular is I’m also left wondering how you are engaging the breadth of the communities in Ghent in this project - is it including socially-excluded communities or is it more a creative placemaking project? Over the years I’ve collaborated with an amazing organization called the Design Studio for Social Intervention (incubated out of MIT’s urban engagement lab) and I continue to be inspired by how they use placemaking approaches to include and empower marginalized voices. Their Creativity Labs could be interesting for you too.

Anyway, that’s a lot I know (and I haven’t even touched on my masters yet! :grinning: ) . In short, great to see how you’ve expanded out of government, and curious as to how you’re continuing to move beyond traditional approaches to this kind of important and generative work.

PS. You may be interested in the Participatory Governance in Culture conference coming up next month in Croatia (I’ll be presenting), if you’re not already familiar with it :seedling:

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@anique.vered I’m interested in that conference in Rijeka - do you think it would be worthwhile for hands on learning or is it too academic? I cant tell…

@noemi I’m glad it interests you!

So from what I can tell, I think because of its subject matter and networks, the conference is designed to be accessible to all kinds of practitioners. In the call for papers they were looking to bring together “scholars, researchers, theoreticians, cultural operators, artists, practitioners, activists, policymakers and decision-makers from across the world and broad range of disciplines”

You can read more on the call here, and the programme here can also give you an idea of the style and nature of how the ideas will be explored.

To me I think it is trying to bridge hands-on learning with scholarship so would be worthwhile thinking about it but yes, I’m really not sure. Would be very happy to share my notes if of interest!

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