“Good design is one that creates meaningful places from spaces that people may relate to,” according to architect Antoine Zammit, founder of Studjurban.

Driven by the firm’s iterative philosophy of linking policy, research and collaboration to design, Studjurban is currently leading Slow Streets, an urban design project across 43 localities in Malta and Gozo, which proposes increased shared streets and prioritising pedestrian spaces.

What inspired the Slow Streets project?

The end of the pandemic caused traffic to return, but by then people had come to appreciate the beauty of being able to safely enjoy the outdoors. Abroad, many cities are considering making COVID-era restrictions permanent. In Malta, the intensification of traffic and congestion, especially in village cores and town centres, is forcing us to consider an alternative way forward by trying to give back these public spaces for residents to enjoy in a better and safer manner.

How possible was it to start off this project?

I think what allowed this project to kick off was the fact that from the outset, it looked doable. To a certain extent, this has already been experienced.

In localities like Valletta and Sliema, where central streets have been closed off to traffic, people felt safer. So, the notion that this could now be extended to other towns and villages is what makes it attractive.

The concept has now started sinking in and there is growing excitement which I experience at every outreach event we participate in.

What were the first steps?

Studjurban conducted discussions with the Local Councils’ Association and Transport Malta to understand key issues, challenges and opportunities in 43 localities. They then studied the urban configuration and traffic flows to explore the possibility of reconfiguring urban spaces in a way that residents could gain priority over vehicular traffic.

Studjurban, in collaboration with Architect Tom van Malderen and his team of collaborating architects, carried out both on-the-ground and desktop analyses, followed by strategies for all participating localities.

Recently, you described the Slow Streets project as “an exercise in compromise”. What did you mean by this?

The Maltese love their roads but Slow Streets is challenging this by inviting residents to reimagine their familiar habitats through a different perspective.

Slow Streets is an opportunity to embrace a new way of living our towns and villages

Despite the heavy traffic, residents and pedestrians should still be given priority to experience open spaces in their neighbourhoods better, and in a safer way. Everyone must compromise to reach an acceptable and enduring balance.

Is convincing people about this project proving to be harder than you expected?

The collective experience of the lockdown enabled the process of converting some of our roads to pedestrian-friendly zones with restricted vehicle access, demonstrating how easy it is to repurpose urban space for mobility and play.

Implementing these proposals has been difficult, as not all local councillors share the same vision, and some still prioritise car-centric measures over pedestrians and cyclists.

However, people have started to respond more positively, with numerous residents further asking for schemes that consider full pedestrianisation.

Some countries claim there are economic benefits to be enjoyed from ‘slow streets’.

We don’t need to go far to see how this impacts economic activity. If we look at the rebirth of Valletta since its streets were pedestrianised way back in 2008, this should already suffice. But yes, looking beyond our shores should encourage us even more.

In New York, for example, what started as temporary installations known as “safe streets”, “slow streets,” and “stay healthy streets,” went on to become a bill that has been passed making its Open Streets programme − the most extensive in the US − permanent. And California has also been mulling similar legislation.

And while Milan’s Strade Aperte works with similar principles, Paris’s ambitious plan for pedestrianisation saw significant restrictions to vehicles.

All these projects are based on creating more liveable, safer and vibrant cities for residents and visitors alike.

Pedestrian-friendly streets often face resistance mostly from business owners, who fear loss of revenue from inconvenienced drivers...

If they could, many people would demand the comfort of parking their cars right outside any shop. This could perhaps explain any resistance to a concept like Slow Streets. However, looking at some available data might help.

Yelp looked at restaurants in Boston’s Little Italy, San Francisco’s Mission District, Chicago Central Loop’s West Fulton Market, Boise’s 8th Street and Burbank’s San Fernando Boulevard, all of which had slow streets programmes that blocked vehicle access in 2020. They found that eateries in car-free areas saw more consumer interest when their streets were strictly limited to pedestrians and cyclists. In certain zones in San Francisco, which were closed to car traffic four nights a week, eateries saw 18 per cent more consumer interest on car-free days. A similar initiative in Brooklyn in New York City reported an average of 54 per cent more customer visits after the first month of the programme.

You have been fronting this initiative. How do you personally feel about its potential outcomes?

I believe in this project because it is a researched initiative that reflects what Studjurban stands for. I also believe in the after-effects that this could bring to our social fabric. Traffic restrictions could encourage people to cycle or walk more, and it could help us rediscover the joys of village life from our streets.

Slow Streets is about making the user more comfortable and safer in the context of whatever they are doing, and the more we improve upon that, the more people will come out and participate.

So it all boils down to mindset...

Yes, but unfortunately, we tend to be very quick with finding excuses and very slow in changing mindset.

Slow Streets is an opportunity to embrace a new way of living our towns and villages. If we embrace this and allow people to first experience new and improved urban environments, by focusing on rethinking and upgrading our physical infrastructure, then I am certain that the mindset will change.

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