GLOBAL TRAFFIC GARDENS

Discover Traffic Gardens presents the first in a series of special articles on the state of the art

 in the traffic garden field around the world!

Kids at the Forefront in Tirana, Albania

Global Traffic Garden Report 1 By Laura Kaye Chamberlain

*This article and video are by our guest journalist abroad, Laura Kaye Chamberlain, and first appeared in Discover Traffic Gardens Newsletter, October 2021. Click through the carousel to enlarge the photos and learn more!

When you were growing up, did you feel safe and happy taking your usual route to school? Did an adult ever ask whether you did?
 

No matter how enjoyable it was (or wasn’t), that route to school probably wasn’t the only one you took. As kids we might regularly go to the park, to the store, and even to the hospital. Navigating the streets of a busy city can feel stressful, congested, and unsafe—or it can empower us, whizzing past parks and shops independently on a trusted bicycle.

There are a number of bright people in the country of Albania who are working to ensure that all road users—particularly kids and their caregivers—are safe and supported in navigating the streets around them. What’s better, they’re making it fun!

Meet the Heroes  Traffic gardens (a.k.a. Traffic Playgrounds, Safety Towns, or Safetyvilles) have long been used to teach road safety in parts of Europe in particular. They’re protected spaces that recreate real-world traffic scenarios, inviting kids to practice navigating these safely. Another bonus of traffic gardens is how they encourage young people to enjoy sustainable active transportation like walking, biking, and other ways of rolling.

In Albania, traffic gardens are called Këndi i Sigurisë Rrugore, which translates to an apparently ‘cozy-feeling’ phrase meaning “Road Safety Corner.” The Këndi i Sigurisë Rrugore program is run by the DPSHTRR (General Directorate of Road Transport Services), a state-run institution that promotes road safety. The dedicated DPSHTRR team working on this project focuses on the education and awareness of children, whom they recognize as the future users and shapers of Albania’s roads.

Their program, run in cooperation with various schools and municipalities, combines traffic gardens with other road safety training. During the last year alone, the DPSHTRR has organized over 30 events in different schools, with the long-term aim of integrating road education into the school curriculum nationwide.

On the day we met Sokol Duma, key advisor to the Albanian DPSHTRR, we were all surprised to find the paved school lot outside the school’s entrance where the team usually sets up that school’s traffic garden… was under unexpected construction.

But this is the beauty of traffic gardens. They can pop up wherever needed, like dandelions in the city.

So that morning, Sokol and the skilled DPSHTRR team adjusted quickly to convert the gym at Shkolla Kosova (“Kosovo School”) into a concise bicycle path, complete with road signs, speed bumps, traffic lights, and extra room to keep learning and playing when not riding a bike.

The kids’ excitement was palpable! Of course, being 10- to 12-year-olds, some of them hid it at first beneath well-crafted coolness. But when Sokol asked who wanted to take the first ride around on a bike, hands quickly shot up, legs springing as they ran over to where the indoor route began.

Watching the kids laugh and chatter at Sokol’s opening remarks, we wondered, how does Sokol keep the kids engaged while learning? Well, he says, “It’s important not to be boring, actually.”

Having worked with children for years, we can heartily testify to this fact.

“If you treat this as a game and they play while learning something, they will learn it happily,” Sokol says. Otherwise, the lessons likely won’t stick.

Inspiration from Abroad  Much of the traffic gardens movement in Albania was inspired by the FIA’s (Federation Interationale de l’Automobile) annual European Traffic Education Contest, which invites kids aged 10-12 from around their designated global region to test their road safety skills and knowledge with some good clean competition.

According to the ETEC, their contest is intended to “intensify traffic education in every country and thereby contribute to reducing the risk of children becoming involved in accidents on their bicycles.”

In many European countries, traffic gardens are already part of the school curriculum. This isn’t true yet globally, but in Albania it’s a clear goal.

Why? Most importantly, traffic gardens and other kid-centered road safety projects help teach children life-saving lessons about how to safely and vibrantly navigate the urban landscape. Their value is immediately apparent as a dynamic educational tool that can be put together on a range of budgets and scales—from an inexpensive and flexible pop-up traffic garden in an underused parking lot to a permanent life-sized safety town.

And the initiative is not limited to European examples. The founder of Discover Traffic Gardens, Fionnuala Quinn, has led numerous projects in the U.S. that not only teach road safety, but also invite deeper curiosity about street design from the kids involved. Some of the young people even design their own traffic gardens!

 

Data for Design  Meanwhile in Albania, leaders like Sokol Duma and Ray Koçi are doing everything they can to inspire and involve kids in advocating for a better city.

Ray Koçi serves as the Program Director at Qendra Marrëdhënie (“Relationship Center”), a nonprofit think tank and technical consultancy in Albania founded by U.S.-born Simon Battisti. The NGO works with local and national governments to support neighborhood planning initiatives that prioritize infants, toddlers, and their caregivers.

In addition to designing a traffic garden and related educational program, QM (Qendra Marrëdhënie) has invited kids to take part in shaping their own city, right outside their own schools. When we visited Ray in Albania’s biggest city of Tirana, QM’s Streets for Kids project was well underway. It’s part of the Global Designing Cities Initiative funded by NACTO (the U.S.-based National Association of City Transportation Officials).

Ray was chatting with workers and fielding calls, in between telling us about QM’s work to uplift young children & their caregivers as the best advocates—and idea generators!—for improving their own neighborhoods. QM’s specialty is collecting and using data to justify and produce these changes, and Ray absolutely loves it.

“For the community, we want to see this as an empowering tool,” says Ray—one that allows local stakeholders to “demand community change, or do grassroots movements that are supported by data.”

And this isn’t just a good idea on paper; she’s seen it happen with QM’s own projects. When presented with localized data about how street design decisions impact air quality and traffic fatalities, parents and caregivers listen. Some of those caretakers have already used these data-backed arguments to advocate for new design choices around them, like narrowing or closing the streets near their kids’ school.

 

Government for Good  Fortunately for them, municipal support for these types of projects in Tirana has been especially strong in the last 5 or so years. Erion Veliaj, who was elected mayor in 2015, has vocally and tactically prioritized the needs of children in public space design and investments.

Ray told us how vital the backing of this local Bashkia (city municipality) has been to their success; the city government even matched external financial support for the Streets for Kids project with their own workers and materials.

 

Best Practices, Best Results  As Ray has seen firsthand, “if you don’t involve them [kids & caretakers] in the process” of re-imagining their community spaces, “you might fail in serving them.” Not only is it harder to convince people they should be happy about a change to the street they’ve lived on for 50 years, but it’s also unlikely to meet their needs.

“And if you design better cities for [kids], they will thrive to be more emotionally [healthy] and intelligent ... the city overall will be better. So if these groups are experiencing the city better, in the long term the city will benefit from it.” As she says, “It may sound like a long shot, but everything affects the life of the city.”

And given all the passion, expertise, and investment being put toward Albania’s cities through traffic gardens and other kid-centered design projects, it’s safe to say that the life of its cities will be flourishing in the years to come—for kids, and the adults they will one day become.

About the guest journalist:

 

 

 

 

 

 



Laura Kaye Chamberlain is a heart-centered journalist & strategic marketer currently living on a peaceful sheep farm in Albania.

Laura is passionate about projects that consciously amplify under-heard voices and movements for climate justice. You can check out some of her other work at Laura Kaye Creations, or on Instagram 📸 @laurakayecreations.

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