Now that the lockdown is beginning to ease, instead of noticing the tropically blue skies and birdsong, we are watching the cars take over our streets again. And as the 1st of June rolls around, those of us living near primary schools are wondering whether the pavement parking and idling vehicles will appear again with the madness of the school run. Our world is reverting to a congested ‘business as usual’ scenario but can we not find another way of living?
Over the past 10 weeks taking daily exercise has for many of us meant walking or cycling along beautifully quiet streets. Often we wandered down the middle of these empty roads, not only to keep the required distance from others on the pavements, but because we could. Initially done out of politeness, it then felt like an act of civil disobedience if no-one else was around, but soon it began to feel normal.
And this is what we need. Strolling along our roads – the massive amount of public space given over to traffic – should become the new normal, quite simply because it is a question of public health. We need to maintain physical distancing during the ongoing pandemic – new maps show that there is not enough pavement space in the UK to ensure that pedestrians can remain 2 metres apart. We must also continue to reduce air pollution and road traffic fatalities.
It is also a question of our mental health – less traffic means less stress and noise pollution – as well as the health of our communities. During the lockdown we have been drawing chalk rainbows on pavements, taking part in sing-alongs out in the street and chatting with our neighbours across the way after the weekly clap for carers. Sadly, streams of cars will have a negative impact on those new neighbourly interactions.
Luckily there is already momentum for change in our city with increased numbers of people commuting by bike, which is being supported by the council’s brand new pop-up cycle lanes and the grassroots campaign for Safer Streets in Southampton. Can we use this new-found love of two wheels to transform our urban spaces into places for people, not cars?
Of course some urban transformations are already in the pipeline. An Active Travel Zone is being planned for St Denys, following extensive conversations with residents on what this low-traffic area might look like. Some locals have been concerned about traffic being pushed elsewhere but the experience in other cities is that motorised traffic actually ‘evaporates’ in low-traffic neighbourhoods.
The current phrase that encapsulates all these ideas is ‘Build Back Better’: using the immense change wrought by the lockdown to create spaces which actually improve our wellbeing and protect our natural environment. This future thinking is fantastic but something more fundamental is at stake here too. Societies are often judged on how they look after their most vulnerable members – for example, children, the elderly, those with health issues and residents living in more deprived areas. If we re-design our city with their needs in mind, we will all reap the benefits, and it will show that we value everyone in our communities, not just those able to jump out of the way of speeding cars.
[Header image: Neighbourhood irrigation – Yau Hoong Tang/FlickrCreativeCommons]