How a little paint can transform a street

By Christopher Swope

This story originally appeared in Citiscope and was republished via the Habitat III Journalism Project.

It doesn’t take long to change the character and safety of a street. All you need is some paint, plantings and more space for pedestrians.

That’s one lesson from a demonstration project just a short walk from where the U. N.’s Habitat III summit on cities is going on this week. On Sunday afternoon, Jorge Washington Street was blocked off from traffic with police tape as a corps of volunteers painted an entire block of blacktop bright yellow. Playful motifs of leaves in red, green and blue were stenciled on top. In just a few hours, the appearance of an otherwise plain block of Quito was completely transformed.

Other changes were made over the previous days. Bright LED lighting made the street feel safer at night. Colorful trash cans were installed. Flowers were planted along the sidewalk. And at the street corners, more swathes of yellow paint on the street were topped with temporary orange bollards. This carved out a safe space for pedestrians to defend themselves from speeding drivers who often cut corners so tight they scare and sometimes hit people standing on the sidewalk.

“One of the main problems here is crossing the streets,” said Pepijn Verpaalen, an urban planner, who had yellow paint all over his hands and blue jeans. “People had to run, because the streets are so unbelievably wide. We’re now making the turns smaller so the cars have to slow down. And you have four meters less to cross than before.”

“Doing this was maybe 10 days,” added Annemieke Kievit, director of public affairs with AkzoNobel, a Dutch firm that makes paints and chemicals. AkzoNobel is part of the Human Cities Coalition, a partnership of Dutch businesses, government, NGOs and academic institutions that does a lot of work improving informal settlements in the Global South. Verpaalen’s urban planning firm, Urbanos, is a partner, too. They called the row of interventions here the Ruta de la Experiencia. They wanted to show how easy it can be to make big quality-of-life improvements in a small urban area.

They also wanted to demonstrate the power of participation — a second lesson from the project. Long before the paint cans came out, coalition members held discussions with residents who live on the poorer end of Jorge Washington Street, just a few blocks from a much more affluent area. They asked asked residents what they would like to see on their block. They wanted more safety, more green areas and better lighting.

Those conversations happened four months ago. So while the actual work didn’t take long, the project as a whole needed time to progress. “Asking the citizens what they want — that has been a long process,” Kievit said. “And getting the permits.”

Kievit explained that for AkzoNobel, this work falls into the realm of corporate responsibility. “Most of our products, which are chemicals and paints and coatings, end up in cities or in building construction,” she said. “We want to innovate and balance business and societal goals. This is one of the ways we do it. We want to make people’s lives more livable and inspiring, and we don’t do any interventions that the citizens don’t want. We start always with the bottom-up process.”

I asked Kievit what may be a third lesson from the project: that rapid urbanization — the subtext to all the policy discussions at Habitat III — will create a lot of opportunities for businesses like the one she works for to make profits. Won’t encouraging cities to paint their streets also help AkzoNobel’s bottom line? “Eventually, I hope it will have business benefits, as well,” she replied. “But right now, there’s not a real business case. It’s definitely a societal program.”

Another potential intersection of business and community interest was a bit further down the street. Workers were turning an ugly wall that hides a parking lot into a vertical garden. The workers were jamming leafy plantings into a porous gray cloth that had been tacked to the wall. Kievit showed me how water flows through PVC pipes to the top of the wall before dripping down through the cloth to nourish the plants. Also required is a bi-weekly two-teaspoon dose of micronutrients — another product AkzoNobel makes.

These plantings weren’t edible, Kievit said, but it would not be hard to use a similar setup to plant vegetables. The same technology can be used horizontally, she said, and stacked up in tight city spaces. “This is very suitable for urban farming,” Kievit said. “That’s a business line that we have that I think will have a great future.”

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