Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Becoming Clara Bebbs

Street Reclaiming: Creating Livable Streets and Vibrant Communities On Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening without Boundaries
As a child, I repeatedly borrowed Ratbags and Rascals from the library. It was a collection of unrelated short stories by Robin Klein: a clumsy monk accidentally blots a piece of parchment and turns it into a work of art; girls on school camp develop a Rube Goldbergian invention to try and stop a roommate from snoring; other girls scare themselves silly holding a seance at a sleepover; and so on. But I especially loved 'How Clara Bebbs put Strettle Street properly on the map'. Clara Bebbs, bored during her school holidays and fed up with her forgettable street, goes about making it interesting. She sticks silver stars to the pavement. She rigs up a trolley pulley so that no-one has to push their shopping up the hill. She builds a jungle, and a swimming pool, and an underground tunnel; organises swap meets and concerts and chariot races; and so on and so forth. To a child who grew up in nondescript streets in the suburbs, this was heady stuff.

Imagine my surprise recently when I stumbled across an adult book that was pretty much the same idea. Street Reclaiming: Creating Livable Streets and Vibrant Communities, by David Engwicht, argues that streets have become dominated by traffic at the expense of public life. Children no longer play in the streets; people don't use the front rooms of their houses; our wisest neighbours sit indoors, away from the traffic, rather than outside dispensing wisdom. The result is a breakdown of community, of neighborhoods, of belonging.

The book goes on to suggest ways to challenge this. Simply put, Engwicht argues that traffic can be calmed, even diminished, through informal means. When people use the street for chatting or games or shelling peas; when neighbours walk or use public transport, rather than their cars; when banners and other mechanisms calm drivers as they slow to look, then drivers will choose other routes, or even other means, to travel. Instead of being solely for cars, the streets will be reclaimed as vibrant public space. Engwicht suggests setting up a 'walking bus' to school, building archways across a street, putting seating in a car space, and doing anything and everything that might entice people to move slowly, use their car less, stop for a chat, and use the street for human interaction. If we put ideas like these into practice, we will end up with more space for conversation and play, stronger bonds between neighbours, and, of course, safer streets for everybody.

This certainly resonates with my experience. In our street, those of us who walk or ride or use public transport are visible. So too are those of us who sit in our front gardens in the evening. We recognise each other, and chat a little. Other neighbours who drive everywhere are, quite literally, invisible to the street. The three houses next to me have rollerdoors at the back of their properties, and I never see the occupants. I wouldn't know them if they knocked on my door. Cars charge through our street, visibility is poor, and I won't let my five year old cross the road to a friendly neighbour's without me checking that it's safe to cross.

I'd love to know more neighbours, and strengthen the bonds with the others, but lack the gumption to go hammer on their doors. So last week, I took a small first step. My kids and I mapped out a chalk labyrinth on the footpath in front of our house. We chatted with a few people who wandered past, and left it there for people to puzzle out. Pity it was so rainy that it washed off the next day. But we will do it again, and again.

My fence is good for writing, as the graffiti taggers know, so I am thinking I might pose a few conundrums, or write a few quotes on it, in chalk. And we have a large street tree with nice horizontal branches on a decent sized 'traffic calming' square of land. I am trying to work out how to hang a tyre swing from the tree. My kids need a swing, and there are other invisible kids in the street who might emerge if there was reason to. A few lawn chairs near the swing, and we're halfway to a street party.

Feeding into these ideas is On Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening without Boundaries, by Richard Reynolds. It's hard to tell whether Reynolds is deadly serious or tongue in cheek. Either way, the book is hilarious, delightful, thought-provoking. It recounts the guerilla gardening movement (private citizens gardening in public space without permission) and provides tactics and suggestions for action. The text is dotted with the language of revolution; gardeners are known by their first name and troop number only. As well as being amusing in its seriousness, it's full of good advice: how to choose a spot; how to minimise vandalism; how to recruit public support and other gardeners; how to win over city councils and the law. And it has helpful notes on plant selection, too.

My sister and I fantasize about dotting our suburb with walnuts, mulberries and other large, graceful, shady trees that will bear fruit. But between climate change and ongoing water restrictions, we can't see how we could nurture a sapling to a full grown adult. To do it properly, we'd need stakes, hessian, and council worker clothes, not to mention the saplings. And anyway, we're chicken.

Until I'm braver, I need to set my sights closer to home. Under our aforementioned street tree, our lovely council spread black plastic to suppress weeds, then dumped a thin layer of tanbark. Even lovelier neighbours regularly leave car tyres (reclaimed by us for potato towers), large chunks of concrete (been there for a year or two now), and all sorts of other rubbish. A council worker sprays the lot with roundup every few months to kill any weed that dares poke its head above the black plastic and tanbark. Yet a block down the street, another tree has been underplanted with daisies and geraniums. The spray-man leaves these, and it makes me wonder whether, if we planted densely enough, he might skip our little corner and spray somewhere else, instead.

Weaving the ideas from these books together, I imagine a little scented garden, a tyre swing, a pavement labyrinth, a few lawn chairs... perhaps, just perhaps, those neighbours hiding behind their curtains might be enticed to slip outside their front doors one warm summer evening. Someone might bring a bottle of wine; someone else, some biccies. And I'll have a moment where I have lost myself in the story, become Clara Bebbs, just for a little while. And Stewart Street, like Strettle Street, may too become interesting.

> Robin Klein Ratbags and Rascals (Ferntree Gully, Victoria: Houghton Mifflin, 1989 (1984); David Engwicht Street Reclaiming: Creating Livable Streets and Vibrant Communities (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society, 1999); Richard Reynolds On Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening without Boundaries (London: Bloomsbury, 2008).


  1. Alison, like you I 'stumbled' across Engwicht's work a few years back. Sad to know that he has had a much more significant voice in other parts of the world than he has had here. Interestingly, I get my students to read some chapters from his book in our stuff on neighbourhood and there is always a sharp divide in the response. Some who are really taken by the possibilities and others who cannot understand why I would ask them to read something like this in a theology class!

    Never thought of myself as subversive!

  2. I love thinking of the possibilities! Thanks once again... Your post reminds me that this reclaiming is happening in other spheres, like the craft world - see http://www.slowguides.com/labels/homemade.html

    Also, you and the kids might be interested in participating in a toy drop (making a toy and leaving it somewhere for another kid to find) or looking out for toys left by others! Sounds like fun but I haven't done it yet...