Reclaiming the streets: urban planning opportunities in a post-Covid UK

By BILLY LUCAS - Editor-in-Chief


There is no doubt that the havoc wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic has seeped into all aspects of our lives – from the most basic health standpoint, to the economic and to the social – it pervades all corners of contemporary society. Yet when the deathly winds die down, which they will, there should be little appetite to a return of the status quo. For as so often in history great crises act as catalysts for societal change, and Britons should not be content with purely returning to a pre-coronavirus world. The crisis has hit those in urban areas hard, and whilst it resulted in plummeting CO2 emissions in Britain and around the world in 2020, the locking up of economies is not the key to sensible progress on making city life more sustainable, nor is it better for overall climate policy. Rather, progress at local levels through street reclamation is crucial in creating sensible urban planning policy that combats inequality and deals with climate change. Street reclamation in UK cities is vital in rewiring our society for the better.


Whilst it is true that the whole nation faces the virus, the pandemic has lifted a veil on an unequal nation. One of the many ways it has shown this was during the first lockdown, which highlighted the lack of access that millions of Britons have to private or shared gardens. An ONS study highlighted that around 1 in 8 British households have no access to private or shared gardens, and in London this figure rises to just over 1 in 5 households. Further, during the first lockdown many parks were closed by local councils, despite government protestations. That urban dwellers have less access to green spaces is a worry, for the benefits of green spaces cannot be overstated, with studies suggesting that urban dwellers that live in close proximity to greenery are less likely to die before their life expectancy, as well as boosting emotional states and attention spans.


To combat urban dwellers missing out on the positive social and health benefits of green spaces, UK cities need to rethink their relationship with their citizens and public spaces. Policymakers must finally focus their attention away from one which sacrifices the city at the altar of the automobile.


But what is street reclamation? It can be distilled into the premise that urban space must be transformed into one that accommodates the citizens, by reducing motorised traffic, creating better play areas for children, and introducing more green and recreational public spaces.


One of the simplest ways to reclaim the streets is to reduce motorised traffic in certain streets in towns and cities, encouraging pedestrian use. Greater Manchester has led the way, with council leaders pedestrianising parts of Deansgate in the city centre, and up to 900 new schemes have been implemented across the country, showing real progress is possible. And last year in London, Sadiq Khan’s plans were a welcome boost. Not only was this beneficial in the immediate short term, for it encouraged walking and cycling to and from work in a socially distant manner, but it has long term positive effects of reducing pollution through lower car usage. It is in effect a win-win. With some studies showing that air pollution may play a role in higher coronavirus mortality rates, encouraging cycling and walking is key to delivering sensible long term change.


Policymakers should look to the continent for inspiration of street reclamation. In Barcelona, urban planners came up with a radical idea to reclaim streets, through a ‘superblock’ initiative. The plan involves sealing off groups of nine blocks, keeping traffic on the outside, only allowing pedestrians inside, thus reclaiming the streets. The benefits for residents has been great, with reduced vehicle pollution and noise pollution, and more importantly, an ability to roam streets without fear of cars or trucks. More green spaces have flourished as a result of extra public space, encouraging more active lifestyles and staving off the effects of isolation and loneliness.


It goes without saying that street reclamation comes with critiques. For many will argue that cities are fine-tuned beings that are specifically designed with less green spaces and to encourage commuting. Sadly all too often low-traffic neighbourhood schemes have come under consistent protests from taxi drivers' organisations and residents associations in wealthy areas, such as Wandsworth, which suspended its low-traffic neighbourhood scheme. Yet reclaiming the streets need not rob cities of the benefits of commuting, and it is true that policymakers must find common ground between the economic prowess of cities and the social and health benefits of street reclamation. In Barcelona’s ‘superblock’ initiative, for example, the main issue is shaping a transportation system around pedestrianised areas. Indeed, studies suggested that traffic outside the ‘superblock’ perimeters increased by around 2 to 3 percent. Yet whilst troublesome, this is not catastrophic, and with major arterial roads intact, it is a surmountable issue. It is worth nothing that some argue the increase in traffic is actually beneficial, as it nudges people into using alternative means of transport. Investing more in public transport systems as Barcelona has proposed, in cities aside from London, such as Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool, which sorely need a strong public transport system, would help combat valid concerns. Clearly, common ground can be found, and the nation can be levelled up in the process.


Using public space effectively is therefore key. Images of London and other cities last summer where restaurants were allowed to overflow onto quiet streets in an al fresco manner not only created an enjoyable continental style of eating but can help with the revival of the much beaten hospitality sector in the coming warmer months. Indeed, simple steps such as those floated in Paris, which plans to remove half of its 140,000 on-street car parking spaces and let residents decide what to do with the spaces, are easy and relatively cheap to implement here in the UK.


Yet there is still much to do for urban planners to reclaim the streets. The pandemic offers a chance for policy makers to change the relationship between urban dwellers and public spaces in a beneficial way. Whilst there has been the right sounds from government and local councils, there is still much to be done to make proper and sensible reclamation of streets so much more than just another policy proposal.


Image - Unsplash (Jonathan Formento)