With mini versions of streets, traffic control signs, crosswalks and other elements of a real life street, a traffic garden is a safe and fun place for people (especially kids) to learn and practice the rules of the road.
Such gardens are somewhat common in other parts of the world, but they are rare in the United States. They can be great resources for traffic safety education, but they are also simply fun to play in when classes are not in session. Maybe it seems boring to adults to pretend to drive, bike and walk on mini streets, but that kind of thing is crazy fun for kids.
Learning how to be safe and comfortable with active transportation is also a good thing for the community, which is why White Center leaders and Cascade Bicycle Club’s Major Taylor Project worked to develop a plan and win a King County Parks grant to open Washington State’s first traffic garden in Dick Thurnau Park (the recently-approved new name for Lakewood Park).
“Having access to cycling is important for health reasons and all sorts of other reasons,” said Pat Thompson, Director and Co-Founder of the YES! Foundation of White Center and a lifelong resident of the area. “To me, cycling is a justice issue.”
She said cycling is on the rise in White Center after decades where she rarely saw any bikes on the streets.
“It’s not normal yet,” she said. “It’s not something you see everywhere. It’s not something every home has.” Part of the problem is King County’s lacking bike infrastructure compared to Seattle.
“You can cross Roxbury and suddenly there are bike lanes, and on the other side there are not.” SW Roxbury St is the city limit dividing White Center and Seattle.
But there’s also a cultural element, which is still in the early phases of shifting to bicycling for practical transportation, she said.
She told me the story of one high school student who came to every earn-a-bike class, an element of the Major Taylor Project that YES! and Cascade Bicycle Club have worked to grow over the past seven years. He rarely missed an earn-a-bike class, where students learn to fix bikes and earn their own ride once they complete the class. But he was almost never at Bike Club, the rides portion of Major Taylor.
So she asked him about it once, and he told her he worked to get the bike because his bus trip to and from work took him an hour and a half. With his bike, he could get there in 40 minutes.
“This young man was part of the income earning strategy for his family,” said Thompson. And access to cycling made his work trips easier.
“That’s one part of a culture I would like to see come about in White Center,” said Thompson, who connects the need for healthy transportation with the need for healthy food in a place with too much fast food and too many public health issues. South King County communities have higher rates of heart disease and a shorter life expectancy than other parts of the county.
One major goal for the YES! Foundation is to create strong, healthy families. Thompson envisions a White Center where people can “enjoy their lives, enjoy each other and live longer.
“This bike piece is just a small piece, but it’s significant,” she said.
But one of the coolest pieces of this project is the role Cascade and YES! have played in facilitating something innovative and community-driven.
“To be here is pretty exciting,” said Thompson. “And knowing that it’s not just happening because of the YES! Foundation or because of me, it’s happening because there are other people who have the same concerns.”
Cascade’s name is on the grant, and Cascade staff have worked to make it happen. But Ed Ewing, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at the club, said the idea really came from conversations with community leaders trying to figure out how the club can support their goals.
“A lot of this has come because we partnered with White Center through Major Taylor for eight years now, so we’ve gotten to know the community and have gotten in the position to ask the leaders in the community,” said Ewing.
“It’s not ‘How do we help?’ but ‘How do we support their existing community goals?’” he said. “We took a lot of time to internally check ourselves [and ask] ‘Do we always have the community’s goals in mind with every step we take?'”
Inspired by Cascade’s ongoing efforts to build a traffic garden at their campus in Magnuson Park in north Seattle, Ewing brought the idea to partners in White Center who suggested Dick Thurnau Park.
The park is adjacent to or within an easy walk of a middle school, a high school and several elementary schools. It has a well-used disc golf course, but underutilized tennis courts. The traffic garden is planned where the tennis courts are currently.
The hope is that this will not only provide opportunities for expanded traffic safety education for students at all levels, but that the traffic garden will be a community gathering place.
“The goal is to reach more students and to eventually reach adults, get families involved,” said Ewing. “A lot of families use an existing basketball court in a different park to teach their kids to ride … We know there’s interest there.”
The garden has a pretty quick timeline. With $75,000 in King County grant funding now in hand, they hope to break ground in early 2016. Cascade, community members and King County staff will be working with Alta Planning + Design over the next couple weeks to develop a design.
For a taste of what a very European version is like, check out the StreetFilms video below. I can’t wait to see how a White Center take on the traffic garden develops.