Katherine LaGrave is a New York-based writer and photographer who has contributed to Popular Science, National Geographic Traveler, and The New York Times.
The pint-sized faux villages that dot America aren’t just cute—they’ve helped teach children pedestrian and bike safety since the 1930s.
Traffic is light in this section of Ashville, New York, despite it being home to a cluster of storefronts: A McDonald’s is kitty-corner from a Walmart, and Tim Hortons is across the street from AAA. Convenient as it all may sound, this district is not quite real.
Instead, it’s part of the child-scaled Chautauqua Children’s Safety Education Village, where, among other things, kids can practice safe biking and walking and learn the rules of the road in a contained, controlled environment. Since the village opened its doors in fall 2010, more than 26,000 children have visited.
“Kids learn best by doing,” said Jessica Dayton, the site’s executive director. “So if we make it a very realistic environment, it’s going to give them the best opportunity to retain that information.”
For third through fifth-graders who come to the Chautauqua village to learn about biking, the lesson begins inside, with students reviewing the rules of the road—what you do at railroad tracks, say, or a stop sign. Every student gets a bike helmet and is taught how to properly put it on.
The students are then split into two groups: The first stays inside to review the ABCs of biking, checking the air in the tires, the brakes, and the chain. Staff members who have been trained in the village’s curriculum also show students how to adjust the height of the seat, and proper riding posture. (All educators are also trained in CPR and first aid.)
Outside, the second group of students puts education into practice, weaving around small (fake) potholes and stopping at red lights. Staff members are also stationed at different turns to ensure students are using the proper hand signals, and applying what they’ve learned in the classroom on the street.
Dayton estimates there are currently about 15 permanent, operating safety villages (also called safety towns or safety cities) around the country—including in Baltimore; Brookhaven, New York (shown in the video clip below); Frisco, Texas; and Naperville, Illinois. (A definitive total is hard to pin down, because of the variety of nomenclature and because some “safety towns” are more programs than places.) They are often collaborations between police, fire, or parks departments, school districts, and local civic groups.
In recent years, smaller “traffic gardens,” usually without mini-buildings, have been popping up in American cities. Two were introduced this spring in Washington, D.C. elementary schools, funded by a $150,000 U.S. Department of Transportation grant.
The rise of traffic gardens reflects a stronger interest in biking and bike safety, says Discover Traffic Gardens’ founder, civil engineer Fionnuala Quinn, and the recognition that the country has an abundance of unused pavement that can be easily transformed with color and paint.
“A lot of kids, myself included, made these [child-scaled streets and towns] ... it’s what we do with old boxes and chalk on driveways,” said Quinn, whose group works with kids to design them. “Traffic gardens are such a great tool because it’s not about lecturing, it’s about experiencing.”
Safety villages are typically much bigger and more comprehensive than traffic gardens (Chautauqua’s, for example, also offers programming on fire safety and gun safety). But in both kinds of installations, the main purpose is the same: Simulating real-life situations or streetscapes to teach kids to be safe out there.
Using miniature towns for safety education can be traced back to Mansfield, Ohio, in 1937. Under the initiative of local policeman Frend Boals, Mansfield built a safety town with kid-sized streets and stop signs, and even bright red mini-cars. Dorothy Chlad, a schoolteacher, helped popularize and expand the program in the 1960s, and thanks to her efforts, the National Safety Town Center officially became a nonprofit in 1974. To date, it says it has provided “speakers, information, assistance, books and materials to over 3,500 communities throughout the United States and 38 other countries.”
Yet despite the long history of safety towns and villages and traffic gardens, there’s very little written comprehensively about them, says Quinn. So there’s no one plan or set of guidelines that people can consult for design and funding.
In the Seattle area, Alta Planning + Design provided pro bono services for two traffic gardens for Cascade Bicycle Club in 2016. Steve Durrant, a landscape architect and vice president at Alta, says his interest in the concept was sparked a decade ago on a trip to Copenhagen, where he saw its long-established Trafiklegepladsen (traffic playground).
For the bigger of the two traffic gardens, Durrant and his colleagues repurposed a double tennis court with a miniature street pattern in black and white. Painted arrows give directional cues, and large, colored dots serve as meeting spaces. Right when it opened, Durrant says, the riders knew what to do.
“Kids that were on their bikes for the first time that day understood where to be, what to do, and where to stop,” he said. In other contexts, he noted, “Cycling instructors have to cut tennis balls in half and take cones out ... and say, ‘Okay, kids, this is a street system.’ And the kids go, ‘No, this is a parking lot with a few tennis balls in it.’ Whereas in the traffic gardens, the circuit is set up in such a way that it’s obvious that it’s what it’s for.”
Despite the enthusiasm around these custom-designed towns and streets for children, there is little hard data about their effectiveness. But Dayton notes that many of the grants that fund the Chautauqua Safety Village require testing before and after, and says kids show a 20-percent increase in comprehension across the board. “If they’re increasing their knowledge a minimum of 20 percent every time they come, and they come four years in a row, that can be pretty significant,” she said.
More data may be on the way: The two D.C. schools that received traffic gardens this spring are working with professors and graduate students at George Mason University to track the application of knowledge acquired by children.
While urban advocates note that traffic gardens and safety villages don’t solve the underlying issue of unsafe streets, they believe they serve an important purpose.
“We should be designing our streets and making sure that everybody’s being careful on our streets, where the burden is not on a small child to be responsible enough to be protecting their life,” said Sara Zimmerman, program and policy director of the nonprofit Safe Routes Partnership. “But I still think that regardless of how idyllic our future was, there would be room for things like traffic gardens. They’re a delightful space for kids, where they have the sense of, This is just for me.”