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?

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A man uses his mobile phone at night near food stalls at a festival in New York.
    Life

    So You Want to Be a ‘Night Mayor’

    As U.S. cities hire nightlife officials, we talked to people on the job about what they really do—and why you shouldn’t call them “night mayors” at all.

  2. Young students walking towards a  modern wood building surrounded by snow and trees
    Environment

    Norway’s Energy-Positive Building Spree Is Here

    Oslo’s Powerhouse collective wants buildings that make better cities in the face of climate change.

  3. Apple's planned new campus in Austin, Texas.
    Life

    Why Apple Bet on Austin’s Suburbs for Its Next Big Expansion

    By adding thousands more jobs outside the Texas capital, Apple has followed a tech expansion playbook that may just exacerbate economic inequality.

  4. A photo of Andrew Field, the owner of Rockaway Taco, looking out from his store in the Rockaway Beach neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York.
    Life

    Tacos and Transit: Rate Your City

    From taco-rich San Diego to the tortilla wastelands of Boston, we asked you to grade U.S. cities on two critical metrics: Mexican food and public transportation.

  5. A photo of shoppers in the central textile market of downtown Jakarta.
    Design

    How Cities Design Themselves

    Urban planner Alain Bertaud’s new book, Order Without Design, argues that cities are really shaped by market forces, not visionaries.