Reclaiming streets for our children

Parklets are a great way to provide a small breathing space for outdoor activities in our cities
With diminishing playgrounds in our cities, parklets can be an excellent alternative where our children can enjoy outdoor play. File photo: AFP

Here is an important but little-known fact about car parking: the more that is provided, the greater the demand.

No city has solved the problem of parking by increasing the supply. If you don't want your city littered with cars, it doesn't help to encourage people to drive by providing countless free parking spaces. What does work is to reduce the demand for car parking by charging market prices for valuable real estate. After all, why should car owners get the privilege to store their private properties in public spaces? When people have to pay to park their vehicles by the hour or half-hour, they are likely to park their vehicles for less time. If people park for, say, one hour instead of eight, then you can immediately multiply by eight the number of parked cars you can accommodate without adding more parking spaces.

Here's another fun fact: public space—which includes streets and footpaths—is intended for public use; it was not meant to be usurped by the wealthy few to store their private possessions (automobiles). We have had cities for thousands of years, and cars for less than 150 years. As cars litter the streets, we lose the use of streets as a meeting place, a place of social encounter, where people living in the same areas can come together and interact, building the social bonds that grow ever more important as pandemics and extreme weather events threaten our existence.

People's need for recreation has only increased, thanks to Covid-19 lockdowns. In response, many cities around the world have started reclaiming public space away from the automobile and making it available to pedestrians and cyclists instead, for outdoor games and socialising, in the form of open streets. Sometimes the reclaiming occurs on a more minor scale, whereby a few parking spaces are converted—temporarily or permanently—into small recreational areas, known as parklets. Permanent parklets have exploded in San Francisco and Sweden, and can be found on a lesser scale in many other cities. The parklet movement is so popular, it has its own day: the third Friday in September.

This year, that day, known as Park(ing) Day, is today.

Here in Bangladesh, schools are finally reopening, and children are starting or resuming studies partly offline. But how many schools have adequate facilities for the students to play outdoors? And if students continue to spend most of their time studying, when are they going to engage in outdoor play? If they are lucky, they live on a quiet or dead-end street; even then, it is mostly boys who play outdoors, and their play is regularly interrupted by motorised vehicles. Do we really value our cars and motorbikes more than our children's mental and physical health? Just because a car or a motorbike costs a lot of money, and our children come "free," does that mean that we believe that vehicles are worth more than children?

If we truly believe in children's right to play—in their right to a childhood—then we should create more opportunities for them to play safely outdoors. Parklets are only a tiny piece of the puzzle; we need abundant fields and parks, and we need to ensure that girls as well as boys can play outdoors. But parklets could help solve the problem, and would be easy to install throughout the city, so that even small children have at least a tiny respite outdoors.

Any suggestion of taking space away from parking and turning it into parklets is generally met with great concern: What about the vehicles? Where will they park? It is truly astounding that we show such great concern over the housing of inanimate, polluting, murderous objects and so little concern over our children. And even if you argue that, of course, children are more important, but who wants a city littered with cars? Then I must return to my initial statement: We can never satisfy the demand for parking by providing more space for it for free. The city will still be littered with cars—parked legally rather than illegally. Is that really such an improvement? When people are forced to pay to park, they will be less interested in travelling by personal motorised vehicles. Rather than prioritising and rewarding travel via polluting and dangerous vehicles, we should prioritise the mental and physical health of our youngest and most vulnerable people.

And while I focus on children, let's remember: outdoor relaxation and socialisation is important for people of all ages. We all deserve better than to convert our cities into a giant parking space where cars have infinite value and people almost none.

Debra Efroymson is executive director of the Institute of Wellbeing in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and author of "Beyond Apologies, Defining and Achieving an Economics of Wellbeing."


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