WHAT IS A TRAFFIC GARDEN?
A traffic garden is a small-scale network of connected streets with scaled-down traffic features and other roadway elements for educational programs, skills building and active engagement. Such networks are found in many places and may be known as safety town, safety city, safety village, traffic park or one of the many other regional names. They can be put together by constructing asphalt streets and concrete curbs on dedicated sites, marking paint striping and pavement markings on hard surfaces or assembled with temporary materials and portable equipment on parking lots and playgrounds. What these facilities and installations all have in common is they create a small world to ride bicycles, steer scooters and acting out pedestrian roles. Children navigate and practice using roadways, intersections and crossings in a safe environment free of motor vehicles. They learn while having active fun and interacting with features and other users.
WHY Discover Traffic Gardens?
My favorite school field trip was to the Clontarf Traffic School where my classmates and I took
turns riding bicycles, driving pedal cars or being the pedestrian. Although sadly long gone, that set of child-scale streets was beloved by generations of Dublin children. Decades later, I recognized the concept when I visited a similar facility in Portsmouth, Virginia. Further investigation revealed other miniature towns and cities dotted around the United States, Canada and beyond and learned how beloved they are by those lucky enough to have had this experience. I realized that kids who have access to these traffic gardens love having their own world, free from motorized vehicles. Inspired by the power of traffic gardens to create lasting memories about important ideas, I set up Discover Traffic Gardens. The mission is to help communities design new traffic gardens as well as to create unique educational programs where young people see how the built world is put together. Children love and remember these miniature worlds where they can play independently or with their pals. More than that, traffic gardens can open children's eyes early to how the built world works so they can see the ways in which infrastructure can be made safer and more inclusive through design. Beyond the fun and learning, traffic gardens are a low-cost community resource and family-friendly gathering place for events, volunteering, and celebrations.
A SHORT HISTORY
Although traffic gardens did not gain widespread popularity in the United States until the 1970s, they have existed in various forms since the 1930's. A local police officer created the first U.S. Safety Town in Mansfield, Ohio in 1937 as an engaging safety education program for pre-kindergarten children. We have visited this hallowed spot and it is now a dingy parking area without even a marker to note its history. Yet when Officer Frend Boals launched Safety Town, it was so popular that it received national coverage and inspired similar programs. The idea was not difficult to replicate and local champions emerged and established safety towns in surrounding communities and further afield. Many built permanent facilities using lots of local volunteer and business support.
Several decades later, there was a significant expansion of the idea with the establishment of National Safety Town by an Ohioan nursery school teacher, Mrs. Dorothy Chlad. With her organizing and publication of safety handbooks and manuals, the idea spread widely. By 1964, there were about 20 U.S. programs and then by 1973, there were over 100. At the peak in the 1980's, 3,500 facilities existed worldwide. Unfortunately, the number of programs and facilities has since declined considerably and there has been little by way of central organizing, outside of the Safety Village movement. Hundreds of facilities of different types do remain in operation with many clustered geographically. To this day, the highest concentration of facilities anywhere in the world continues to be in their home state, Ohio.
There is no one 'typical' traffic garden design style, but instead many variations of layouts and much local character evident in the features. What they all have in common is that they create a miniature network of streets that engages the imagination of children as they learn and have fun. In some cases, such as Safety Villages, they involve programming that is about much more than 'traffic safety' and they educate on such topics as fire prevention, household poisons, water safety and other important life lessons. For purposes of this website, we focus on the traffic-related elements of all the different styles of facilities and have organized them into the following typology:
TRAFFIC GARDEN PARK
Traffic Garden Park: Outdoor mini-street network with asphalt streets, usually curbed. Standalone facilities may be staffed plus bikes and pedal devices supplied. When part of larger facility, traffic garden parks are intended for active play, with users typically supplying their own bikes.
TRAFFIC GARDEN COURT
These feature surface-applied pavement markings creating a miniature street network in a dedicated outdoor space. They are available for programs or active play. Typically, users provide their own pedal devices. Staffing and buildings are less common at these sites.
TRAFFIC GARDEN KIT
This is a portable kit to create a temporary traffic garden, inside or outdoors. Temporary installation ranges from single-class assembly to full-length summer camps. Accompanying programming is run by local organizations with educational goals, and may involve students in the design and assembly of the traffic garden.
SAFETY VILLAGES & CITIES
Safety Villages and Cities are similar to traffic gardens in that they deploy a miniature set of streets. However, they usually provide broader safety education programs including fire and life safety skills.
THEME PARK TRAFFIC GARDEN
These traffic gardens are part of a larger theme park. They're intended as fun, traffic-themed active play, and their design is generally similar to that of traffic garden parks. They may include popular children’s characters or other commercial toy tie-ins, and generally require paid admission.
TRAFFIC GARDEN BUILDING ELEMENT
These small-scale traffic gardens are included as commercial building amenities, and can be located either indoors or outdoors. You might find them as part of a play area at shopping mall, or in an apartment building. This type of traffic garden is intended as a family amenity to allow active play.
Traffic gardens range from lines painted on a parking lot to small-scale cities with electric cars, buildings, and operating traffic equipment. Much depends on facility size, funding, construction, available equipment, and target demographic. Because of the lack of standard design guidance, facilities often have some unique features and exhibit a lot of local character as well as reflect the specific work of the folks who championed them originally. Some sites have evolved over time, while some remain exactly as they were originally designed and built. Here are some common traffic garden features from existing traffic gardens: