David Engwicht is one of the world’s most inventive thinkers and writers on creating vibrant public spaces. He is the founder of Creative Communities International, an incubator for social innovation which works to build the capacity of citizens and cities to create vibrant neighborhoods, prosperous shopping streets and add magic to the public realm. Often hailed as the “traffic calming guru,” Engwicht is credited with pioneering the concept of the Walking School Bus, and he invented the Neighborhood Pace Car.
Although never formally trained as an urban planner, Engwicht’s innovative approach to community engagement and his revolutionary ideas about traffic management make him a highly sought-after expert in the field. His first involvement with the built environment wasn’t until 1987 when he attended a public meeting on plans to upgrade Route 20, a thoroughfare proposed for his home – a suburb of Brisbane, Australia. Though he was a window washer at the time, he was quickly appointed to a leadership role in this campaign, known as CART, Citizens Against Route Twenty. This experiences informed his booklet “Traffic Calming” (1988), which spurred the traffic calming revolution in many parts of the world. Today, he shares his expertise with towns around the world, energizing and empowering communities to become responsible for their public spaces.
David is the eldest son of an itinerant gospel preacher. After dropping out of high-school, he trained as a telephone technician. He has had a wide variety of jobs throughout his life: he worked with young people in Australia as a freelance social worker and later became a furniture craftsman and a marketing manager for a magazine. He considers his lack of formal education and his underprivileged childhood as two of his greatest assets.
In 1992, Engwicht wrote the book Reclaiming our Cities and Towns in response to the cities were implementing the concepts in his first book. He also traveled the world working as a consultant bringing his Placemaking knowledge to city agencies and communities throughout the UK, Italy, Canada, USA, New Zealand and Australia. In 1992 he became a member of the CEAD Committee (Community, Environment, Art & Design) of the Australia Council, a government arts funding body.
In 1994, David partnered with the Brisbane City Council to conduct the first-ever study to connect garbage reduction techniques and traffic reduction. Inspired by his work with communities around the world, David made an accidental discovery in 1996: the speed of traffic on residential streets is governed, to a large extent, by the degree to which residents have psychologically retreated from their street. This insight, and many others, became part of a publication called Street Reclaiming: Creating Livable Streets and Vibrant Communities (1999), which proposed that streets be treated not just as corridors but also as places for community building and engine-rooms of robust local economies.
In 2001 David conceived and implemented Red Sneaker Week in Brisbane, Australia – a program encouraging kids to walk to school. In 2004, he met the late Hans Monderman and subsequently became involved in the Shared Space experiments in Europe. A year later, he published Mental Speed Bumps: The Smarter Way to Tame Traffic (2005), which combines his experience with instant street reclaiming with the insights he gained working with Monderman in Europe. In 2007, Engwicht became the official Placemaker for the City of Wodonga in Victoria, Australia. His main job was to rebuild the main street of a rural city that was known to locals as “Struggle Town.” Today, he continues to meet with city officials around the world, sharing strategies for social innovation.
Humor: The Secret to Traffic Calming. Known as the “guru of traffic calming,” David advocates for cultural solutions to transportation and congestion challenges. City agencies and community groups around the world seek out David’s expertise and creative fire to invigorate their public planning process. His recommendations don’t focus on developing a design or on certain engineering solutions but instead concentrate on ways to use humor and local cultural and social assets to shift away from the obsession with mobility to a new mentality focused on cultivating meaningful, beautiful experiences.
David’s insights include how to use humor to humanize motorists, which can be an effective strategy to diffuse road rage and calm traffic in a way that contributes life and magic to the public realm. Humor encourages motorists to relate to each other as humans. It encourages drivers to pay more attention and care and decrease the chance for accidents. “Once, I put red devils horns on my bike helmet. I didn’t do it with any mission in mind; I just thought it would be fun. Often the responses would catch me by surprise. Kids would have cheesy grins on their faces or someone would pull up behind me and start chatting with me. Suddenly I realized that humor re-humanizes environments that have become dehumanized. That person relates to you as a human instead of an anonymous cyclist.”
The Value of Spontaneous Exchange. David’s teachings also suggest that cities are built for the efficiency of exchange – and represent a major step forward in human evolutionary history. The condensed complexity of urban areas creates the possibility for new encounters and boosts creativity. In a recent conversation with PPS, David said, “What is the city all about? The efficiency of exchange. There are two types of exchange, planned and spontaneous. For traffic engineers, planned exchanges can be translated as “trips”- this is the only focus of engineers. Spontaneous exchanges are known as exchanges for free- they don’t cost any more infrastructure – but they are almost impossible to measure.”
Low-Cost Solutions. When thinking about improving public spaces and public life, “money is not the issue.” Many of David’s recommendations, which are the subject of his latest book, Mental Speed Bumps, focus on low-cost tools for traffic problems, community engagement, Placemaking, economic development, and strategies for thinking outside the square. In his writings and his workshops, David is dedicated to helping cities identify the “low hanging fruit” – the small things that can be done immediately that set off a positive chain reaction with the potential to revitalize entire communities.
“Most of the problems we have in our cities are social or cultural problems. These problems need to be addressed at the cultural level and can’t be solved simply through design. We have a design-centric view of the world where we assume that every problem can be solved by changing the design of physical space. Our cities have moved from citizenship to entitlement. I’m passionate about design, but design is not what is going to fix the problems. We have to move back to the mind frame where citizens take responsibilities for fixing their own problems.”
“Build a master aspiration, not a master plan.”
“The city is an invention to maximize exchange and minimize travel.”
“The speed of traffic on residential streets is governed, to a large extent, by the degree to which residents have retreated from their street.”
“Place Making is like home making. Home making turns a house into a home. Place Making turns a space into a place.”
The following is an extract from an interview with David and the Bike Walk Twin Cities Program Director, Joan Pasiuk, in which David explains the consequences of the slow erosion of civic responsibility:
We’re stuck in a vicious cycle. The city has regulated what used to be citizen responsibility. There was a time when the people could build a building wherever they liked. This resulted in the classic French villas and Italian hill towns whose streets have an organic feel along with organic squares and spaces. The builders of those buildings had a civic responsibility to build in a manner that contributed to the vibrancy of the entire public realm. Now, that civic responsibility has been taken away from the creator of the building and is instead regulated by the city. We rely on the intelligence of one or two public planners rather than the magic and creativity that each individual can bring to the public realm. It’s a total erosion of what used to be citizen responsibilities and has created what I’d call an entitlement attitude. Cities define their residents as customers and start creating a customer-merchant relationship. With that kind of set up, a resident can say, “I have my rights –you provide the roads, remove the rubbish and fix the conflicts I have with my neighbors. I pay the money, you give me the product.” At the same time, without realizing it, those residents are also saying, “I’m a disembodied citizen. I no longer belong to a vibrant community; I no longer have a connection to my neighbors.” The city has taken away their responsibilities, but they’ve also surrendered it. To solve problems, cities need to hand back that responsibility to the residents.