WHAT IS A TRAFFIC GARDEN?

A traffic garden is a set of small-sized streets with scaled-down traffic features and other fun elements. Traffic gardens may be known as safety town, safety city, safety village, traffic park or one of the many other regional names. They can be constructed with asphalt streets and concrete curbs on dedicated sites  or assembled with temporary sets of markings and portable equipment in parking lots and playgrounds. What these facilities and installations all have in common is they create a world to ride bicycles, steer scooters and drive pedal cars. Children navigate and practice using roadways, intersections and crossings in a safe and fun  environment free of motor vehicles.

WHY do they matter?

A favorite school field trip of mine was to the Clontarf Traffic School where my classmates and I took 

turns driving pedal cars, riding bicycles or acting as pedestrians. 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. I realized that kids who are lucky enough to have access 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.

TYPES

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.

FEATURES

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:

PAVED STREETS

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These traffic gardens have asphalt or concrete streets, with or without curbs. Some feature two-lane two-way streets, long straightaways, roundabouts, and intersections.

PAINTED STREETS

These traffic gardens are created by the painting of a street network on asphalt. They may feature two-lane two-way streets, long straightaways, roundabouts, intersections and other features, like parking.

SIDEWALKS

When traffic gardens include sidewalks, they can be concrete with physical curbs or painted representations (usually gray) on asphalt or concrete. The sidewalks usually run alongside the road edge and to pedestrian crossing points. 

INTERSECTIONS

Many traffic gardens feature 3-way and 4-way intersections or roundabouts. Pedestrian crossings are typically included and sometimes railroad crossings are featured also.

BUILDINGS

Traffic garden buildings can range from painted outlines on asphalt to volunteer-constructed boxes, or even detailed replicas of local landmarks. Often, these feature signs from a local sponsor.

SIGNS & SIGNALS

Traffic gardens include reduced-scale stop signs, yield signs, crossing signs, directional signs, crossbacks, and working signals. Occasionally, the local public works department will donate signs.

OTHER FEATURES

Some common traffic garden additions include benches (for adults), trees (for shade), and plazas (for organizing groups and lessons). Some traffic gardens even have car washes, filling or charging stations, and repair shops.

STORAGE

Storage is generally needed whenever a traffic garden has portable features or mobile equipment. This usually takes the form of an onsite locked shed, which may also be used for repairs and charging vehicles.

MOBILE EQUIPMENT

 Some sites provide bicycles, pedal cars, and battery-powered electric vehicles. These sites may also permit outside pedal equipment. Many public traffic gardens rely on kids to bring their own equipment.

Locations

Traffic gardens exist in countries all over the world but are found in particularly high concentrations in North America and Europe. A handful have been in continuous operation since the 1970's and quite a few others have been operating successfully for 20 years or more. The United States is currently experiencing a resurgence with a number of new facilities installed in the last three years. We have identified 250 permanent traffic gardens around the world and hope to visit as many of them as we can over coming months and years to find out more. There has been little comprehensive information available about the unique design aspects, how they operate or the learning programming but we are on a mission to fix that. Click the map below to discover the thirty or so traffic gardens we've visited so far!

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