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A sign of the times: opening minds to open streets

As more and more streets transform into people-friendly places or low traffic neighbourhoods, how we communicate these changes is proving just as important as the physical changes themselves.

When changes were made to local roads in Brixton, London to help make it easier for people ride bikes, walk and enjoy their neighbourhoods they were not immediately welcomed by everyone.

Despite a number of positive alterations to the street environment such as slower speeds, the addition of places to ride, generous pavements, planting and seating, the changes were matched with big, red signs that said 'road closed'.

The bold red road closed signs told people the opposite of what had been done and were immediately associated with negative thoughts. Rather than focusing on the positive changes to the neighbourhood, the language of the sign focused on what had been taken away.

It caused Brixton local Sarah Berry to design a new sign that told people what you now could do, rather than what you can't.

Sarah made a green sign showing that the road was open for walking, bike riding, scooting and people with with reduced mobility. The positive green signs were quickly adopted by the council.

“The red signs are kind of the opposite of what these schemes are trying to suggest, which is that the use of this space is changing. It’s no longer going to have cars streaming through, it’s going to be a place where the community can stop, have a conversation, let their kids play,” Berry told The Guardian.

It showed that getting the signage and communication about changes to public areas can be just as important as the physical work.

People who haven't been involved in the campaigning or planning of a new park, calmer street or outdoor mall need to be shown what they can now do that they couldn't do before and why it's likely that they'll like the change. 

This is starting to be realised locally, including in Flinders Lane in the Melbourne CBD where rules from the new playbook are being applied.

City of Melbourne is making Flinders Lane, and other 'little streets', better for pedestrians by changing to friendlier speed limits and retiring zebra crossings that limit where you can walk across the road.

However, instead of only installing loud signs that say 'changed speed limit', stencils were painted on the bitumen that show that what is now possible in Flinders Lane.

The stencils show adults and children crossing the road—the adult with an obligatory coffee cup (probably reusable)—and people on scooters and skateboards.

As well as reminding anyone who does drive a car down Flinders Lane to keep an eye out for people walking, the stencils communicate how the changes to the street can make it a more enjoyable place to be. It aims to put people and positive change at the centre of street design.

However, there are still some other streets around town where improvements could be made, like on Sumner Street in Brunswick East in Melbourne's north.

A change was recently made so people could ride a bike across the main road, Nicholson Street, into an apartment complex and shopping centre, but so that people could not use Sumner to drive through residential streets.

Signs on Sumner Street in Brunswick East indicate no one can use the street.

The changes at Sumner Street were matched by signs that say 'no through road' and 'trial road closure', which is not entirely accurate.

You can still ride a bike, still walk through street, only now it should be an improved, low traffic experience.

People involved in campaigning and planning improvements for cities, suburbs and towns can often feel like their hitting their head against a wall when it comes to getting people to come along for the ride, however perhaps we don't always get it right when talking to all community members.

It's time for us to think more about how we can help get people on board changes to people-friendly, low traffic neighbourhoods and make sure we get our communication correct.

And if you see something that you think could be improved, have a chat with your local council. Just like Sarah Berry you could be the one to make the change.

Click here to read Road closed or open? The signs revamping low-traffic neighbourhoods in The Guardian.

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