German steel city makes inner-city life 'livable'

Two children test their skill in crossing a bridge of quivering suspended logs. Some older boys play soccer, with a stylized log house serving both as a goal and as spectator stand. Mothers converse next to a ping-pong table, and the daughter of one of them plays hopscotch on the tabletop.

It's lunchtime at one of Essen's happy experiments in making the inner city livable. The scene's liveliness explains why city planners from America, Japan, and Commonwealth countries, Yugoslavia, and a host of other countries put this city in the Ruhr iron and coal heartland on their itineraries.

Five streets used to come together at Isenberg Square, and shoppers who drove downtown used to snare parking places here. It was anything but a safe spot for neighborhood children to play. And it was anything but a pleasant place for grandfathers to read newspapers.

In 1976, however, the city made dead ends of the five streets and declared a "traffic calm" area in the former intersection. Cars were permitted, but they were kept down to a walking speed by "street furniture" obstacles -- benches, urns for plants, and the like -- that any car had to slalom around. The idea came from the Netherlands, where 40 cities were already putting it into practice.

Soon the breathing space made the square's residents want more. By 1978 the intersection was closed off to cars altogether. Additional bushes were planted and a playground, benches, and a chess/checker table were installed. The square now invites mothers to chat while shopping, and school-bound kids to drop thier bookbags for a few minutes of tag.

It's too early to tell if the renovation of some 20 squares and streets and 50,000 square meters in Essen will achieve one of its main purposes: averting the flight of residents from the old city to the suburbs. But already some positive statistics have come in. Serious accidents have been halved on the redsigned streets. Car traffic has dropped in neighboring streets as well. Now 88 percent of residents in project areas, who once were dubious, are giving their approval to the programs.

Essen started early with these municipal experiments. Shortly after World War I it closed off Limbeck Street to through traffic and made one of the first pedestrian malls in Germany. After World War II a large section near the train station was made into a walking zone.

A number of shopkeepers and local residents opposed the change at first. But now it's so accepted that businessmen chip in to finance the underground parking lots that feed drivers into the walking zone. And shoppers seem happy to leave their cars and enjoy the open-air cafes and markets and various contemporary fountains.

So popular did walking zones become in West Germany in the 1970s that some 340 cities had them by 1976, and more have them now. And Starting this year the "traffic calm" mixing pedestrians, cyclists, and cars is being promoted nationally.

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