Will Covid-19 change the way we use the streetscape for good?
Of the many environmental changes taking place as a result of Covid-19, our use of streets must rank near the top. The temporary changes designed to deliver safer conditions for walking and cycling, communities clapping the NHS and proposals for low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) as part of the government’s emergency active travel project and the mayor of London’s Streetspace have contributed to this shift.
Not that these proposals were universally popular. One of the most ironic images of the pandemic is that of Upper Street in Islington, where angry residents stopped the cars as they marched down the road to protest about the imposition of new low traffic neighbourhoods in the borough.
The irony is that the march itself transformed Upper Street from a dangerous, polluted and jam-packed racetrack into a pleasant pedestrian public space providing the sort of environmental improvements proposed by the LTNs. It is additionally ironic that the Barnsbury area of Islington which adjoins Upper Street was subject to London’s first low-traffic plans back in the 1970s, when residents succeeded in convincing the council to reduce rat-running by closing streets, planting trees and putting in Victorian-style railings, street lighting, cobblestones and granite setts. The ideas were copied in many parts of London in the following years, generally with residents’ approval.
Surveys by the Barnsbury and St Mary’s Neighbourhood Group suggest these measures are favoured by a majority of local people. Some 83% of respondents to one survey said fear of speeding cars would deter them from encouraging their kids to walk and cycle locally. Few would even think of playing in their street.
“There is no more pitiable sight in life than a child which has been arrested for playing in the street,” Nancy Astor told the House of Commons back in 1926. Today, children aren’t fined but they may well be mown down by a speeding motorist. But LTNs provide an answer as growing demands for public playspace has accelerated because of the pandemic.
When back in 2009 two Bristol neighbours, Alice Ferguson and Amy Rose, came up with the idea that children might temporarily take over their street from cars it seemed a pretty radical idea. But in the intervening years, play streets have spread right across the UK.
Today, two-thirds of London’s borough councils offer residents the opportunity to close their streets for play and socialising with neighbours. The move was helped by various royal events – weddings and jubilees encouraged councils to facilitate street parties. This empowered local residents with the realisation that streets were not only for cars. At the same time, authorities reduced the bureaucracy entailed in closing streets to through traffic.
This a shift that happened long before Covid-19 came long, but the pandemic has speeded up changes in attitudes to streets. For too long the car driver has had a sense of entitlement, which is now thankfully fading. Last month, at the launch of Designing Streets for Kids, a guide funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, founder Mike Bloomberg said: “Until recently, streets were designed around automobiles – not people. We’ve begun to change that, and it’s saving a lot of lives. This guide will help more cities take action and make their streets safer and better for residents of all ages.”
We all pray for some sort of return to normality during the current crisis, but I hope that we retain the positive changes that have happened as a result of the pandemic. Using our streets in a more civilised way is just one of those positive changes.
Image courtesy of Unsplash
As featured in OnOffice 152, The Play Issue. Read it here.