The Power of School Streets: With Simon Battisti

7 min. read

Simon Battisti is the Director of Qendra Marrëdhënie (QM). The name means ‘relationship centre’, and the organisation has been operating for the past 3 years supporting the city of Tirana with technical expertise for early childhood, especially in neighbourhoods and around schools. We speak with him about QM’s projects and philosophy over that period.


Your work at QM focuses on the idea that young children and caregivers are very important to cities. Can you expand on how these groups fit into your theory of change?

We really think of environmental justice as the long-term goal that we are working toward. Organising people toward environmental justice should be happening all the time, in many ways, from different perspectives. What we found is that kids mobilise communities quickly around the challenge of car dominance. For example, we will be working on a school street and a parent will ask ‘what’s going on here?’ and we will say that we are changing the street, removing parking, a lane of traffic, and it’s for kids’ health. Even if it inconveniences them, they can accept it, they can justify it to themselves and be ok. 

We have a very proactive child-friendly mayor in Tirana. We have watched his administration push through huge, transformational infrastructure projects in the name of kids – closing a giant roundabout and turning it into public space, transforming neighbourhood spaces into playgrounds by taking away a lot of parking – the number of parking spaces that Tirana has removed in the past 7 years is incredible, and they don’t mention it because it’s not necessary. What they talk about instead is why, what has gone into that space. That has been powerful to witness. 

Society needs healthy people and to get them we need healthy childhoods. Play is an essential ingredient of thriving childhoods and it’s still treated as an extra. It’s a global trend that children becoming more sedentary – the obesity rate in Albania in children 0-5 is now 16%, which surpassed the UK and the US for the first time this year. Car dominance, pushing kids out of the street, taking away the places they can play—this is all a big contributor to this. Kids build their brains through play. They learn how to socialise, how to make decisions, how to deal with toxic stress, which helps in school. The lack of play is creating a generation of kids who are less able to deal with the world. 

Our work tries to demonstrate as much as possible to people what else is possible in spaces that are overrun by cars. We want to show how fast change can happen. Seeing it first hand is key. Seeing it we believe it. And helps to undo the vicious cycle of people seeing streets as only for cars, which is passed on. Child-friendly planning should purposefully undo that cycle and build in positive cycles, where kids and caregivers see the possibility of convenient space to play and hang out in, to catalyse demand for more of that kind of space.

You’ve worked with School Streets in the past. Can you explain why this kind of project was picked in light of the challenges you just mentioned and what are the challenges for School Streets?

Schools are pretty evenly distributed in cities, which builds in a logic of equity to safe, playable streets that is an easy starting point and doesn’t raise a lot of questions of “why here”. It is a map that is in place and is easy to intervene on. City governments see the value, school streets make sense to them, they’re easy to replicate at other schools, everyone can kind of easily imagine how a program would unfold, how it’s a simple multiplication of the same efforts over and over, and that helps to minimise the barrier to entry. Next steps are obvious. Which is really important for the mentality and morale of the city staff, when you are asking to try something new, because they are sticking their necks out for a lot of potential criticism for a project that has worked in other places, but has not been tried in their city yet. 

Kids need to play every day and schools collect kids twice a day. Kids are basically at home and school, especially before age 7-9, or whenever independent mobility kicks in in a context. There are alarming statistics that the place kids are most likely to get hit by cars is within a 500 meter radius of school. In Chile, 70% of crashes involving children happen within a 500 meter radius of school. There are studies from Canada as well. This other perspective of reducing childhood injury means that you have an obligation to focus on the school area. This is a huge motivator to find ways to reduce the volume and speed of cars in front of schools. 

The potential of schools is also that they are a pre-existing community. These are exactly the people who we need to be talking to, and who we need to be building power among, in order to quickly organise to address large-scale challenges like climate change. When we do school street parties especially, the smiling faces are incredibly persuasive to elected officials as much as to the general public. Schools have this community built into them that can cut through other underlying tensions in communities. Schools represent a powerful node, they hold community memory, we find so often that people have an affection for their local school; they provide a sense of longevity, building values through communities and their expectations for what they could possibly deserve in terms of the way the built environment responds to them. 

Are school streets a means to an end or an end themselves?

We see them as a means. School streets have all these co-benefits. They represent the potential to change mentality about the way streets should work at a citywide scale, which has the potential to influence regions. School streets change kids’ access to play really concretely. They also build demand for equitable mobility, so that transport infrastructure is thought of as for people. 

Walkability is an urgent matter globally, particularly in the so-called developing world, where infrastructure has forgotten about walking for decades. Walking has never been in infrastructure plans, and yet most people walk. Walking is the means of transportation for people with fewer means. 

We need to stop thinking about what we can do to appease drivers, Or how we can minimise the pain of taking parking away. No! We need to flip it. We need to build the street the pedestrian needs and loves. The rest doesn’t matter. The result would be that we would start building cities that would be responding to the needs of people with fewer resources. By shifting our approach to investing in walking, we reward people who are effectively already the champions of environmentally just cities whether they have chosen to be or not— the way they move in the city is what everyone else needs to be doing. We need to make it healthy and convenient for them to keep doing what they’re doing, because right now they are enduring horrendous air pollution, noise, stress, everyday. If these people stopped walking and started driving, our cities would grind to a halt tomorrow. Drivers owe pedestrians an enormous debt for not driving!

Playable streets are walkable streets. A street that kids can play in everyday is going to be walkable. The needs of kids playing are similar and overlapping with the needs of pedestrians. School streets demonstrate the power of leading with the needs of kids and pedestrians in order to create spaces that we all like to be in. They are quick, cheap, and convincing. They convince people immediately of their value. People love it when we have street parties, parents and kids always ask us if we can come back and do this tomorrow.

For a city that wants to be child- and caregiver-friendly, what would you tell them in order to get started?

Close a street for 4 hours and have a party! It’s quick, easy, low-barrier to entry. It demonstrates to the public the possibilities of the street and instigates demand for more change. 

Cities need to creatively undo car dominance. Cities also need the technical capacity to deliver these kinds of projects. Working the infant-toddler-caregiver perspective into the way a city sees function and purpose is really important. This requires training and on the ground experience. It’s difficult to change the way cities do things. Street parties are easy, but changing the way cities build streets, and getting them to do it well, is a long-term effort. In places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen the fight is ongoing. This will be the struggle of cities for all of our lifetimes. Accepting that is important. We need to constantly fine-tune our methods to influence cities’ technical staff to start building in better practices. Design guidelines are a start, but we have seen that an even better way is to co-build interventions, as a workshopping, capacity-building process, which then you need to co-implement. NGOs or other experts need to be on the ground through a few projects, understanding the lessons learned, trying new pilots. Pushing cities to make proof for themselves and then to nudge them to invest in bigger programs. Which might include nudging communities at the same time. It’s kind of a process of pushing the possibilities that both sides see at once. 

Philanthropy or other outside funders can play a big role in guiding that structure in a smart way, to ensure it follows through for at least 5-6 years, which ensures that change becomes embedded in the city. That amount of time might seem long, but I really believe that without that kind of sustained support, it’s much harder to predict what will come out of it. 

Political will creates an opportunity for rapid change, but these things are fleeting, so if you do have it, it’s important to mainstream these processes while it’s there. But again, from the other side, political will can be built through supporting mayors who have indicated an interest to do something, where organisations can bring in lessons learned, especially regionally. In the Balkan region, we have capital cities who have seen the rapid urban transformation that a child-friendly focus like we have in Tirana can bring and of course they want to try it, but they can’t just copy it. NGOs can kickstart that cycle.

You mention in Born Thriving that displacement can be a potential negative consequence of school streets and other types of child-/caregiver-friendly interventions. How does this impact your approach to creating change? 

At our first school street pilot we had this situation where we wanted to turn part of the school’s garbage collection area into a pocket park. There is a large community of trash pickers who work there every day. When we talked to the school about where they wanted to move their trash we realised these two groups have totally different needs from this space, and we ended up backing off and not doing it then because it would have created a dynamic that we weren’t going to be able to resolve on our own. That is when we need to be working with community groups much more closely who already have the trust of vulnerable communities to work through these situations in ways that are seriously addressing everyone’s right to use of the public space. 

Parking is another example. It’s not that parking space is always “official,” and when you move parking space or take it away you are probably going to be churning up all kinds of long-standing conflicts that were settled between neighbours but maybe only very tenuously. Those conflicts will settle again, and they will settle fast, but it’s important to be conscientious that they exist in order to keep your champions with you. There are subtleties that are important. And also it’s just important to recognise that change itself is annoying even if the result will be “healthier” than what is there, in a city changing as fast as Tirana is, there can just be a change fatigue that makes people seem like bigger opponents than they actually are.   

It’s really important to understand these street changes as part of a longer term process. The completion of a school street is by no means the end of the change. It’s just the beginning actually. Building relationships in the neighbourhoods you work in has to happen over time, which is why piloting, doing street parties, working on capital construction projects is a really nice way to work because you’re there on the street for a long time, going through different versions of a street and working on improving it every time.

All Images courtesy of QM.