A 1972 documentary with lessons for today.

In 1972, a group of young schoolchildren in rundown central Amsterdam banded together to demand a play street. In this excerpt from a documentary that aired on Dutch television at the time, you can see them marching for their right to run around without fear of automobiles.

"All these cars are unbearable. There is no space left," one of the young organizers says.

As you can see from the film, which was posted and subtitled by Mark Wagenbuur on the indispensible Bicycle Dutch, some adults opposed the idea.

"Impossible! You cannot ever close a street! Out of the question!" says one man, surrounded by children who look at him with calm resolve. In another scene, a violent confrontation ensues after some grown-up protesters erect a barrier to traffic, which is repeatedly thrown aside by the driver of a VW van.

Despite the opposition, local leaders realized that things could be done differently – that cars could be re-routed away from the densest residential neighborhoods, that the speed limit could be reduced to 30 kilometers per hour (just under 20 mph). In the end, according to Wagenbuur, the children got their play street, and it is still there today. The once neglected neighborhood has become desirable. All residential streets in Amsterdam have a 30 kph speed limit.

The street today. Images via Google Streetview

Today in dense neighborhoods of American cities, we are grappling with the same problems. The differences? Cars are bigger and faster and more numerous. Streets are wider. And our social interactions with our neighbors have been eroded, so banding together can be more difficult.

Still, it's happening. In New York, where five children were killed by drivers in just five weeks this fall, community pressure for better streets, tougher traffic laws, and stricter enforcement is building.  

If you doubt that the actions of a few ordinary people can change anything as entrenched as our bias toward automotive traffic, watch this film. If these children could do it, why can’t we?

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