Westminster Bridge redesigned as a Life-Saving Street accommodating essential travel, cycling and generous pedestrian routes along with physically-distanced dwell spaces amongst new temporary landscaping and street furniture. Image designed by McGregor Coxall design studio.
Redesigning our towns and cities as people-friendly places in order to address Covid-19
An opportunity for lasting change
Covid 19 has changed the world in an unbelievably short period of time, and we will not be able to go back to our old ways anytime soon, or arguably ever. People will need to adapt to new ways of life for the foreseeable future, whilst our towns and cities will need to change to reflect new norms. With this, our streets offer an attractive and flexible solution to help us do so - protecting people from COVID19 and any future crisis we might face.
Whilst the virus has led to unprecedented upheaval, damage and harm to life, we can see rays of light through the dark. A recent YouGov poll that was commissioned by the Royal Society of Arts, suggested that people have appreciated the unintended consequences of the stay-at-home lockdown, including a stronger sense of community, experiencing less air pollution, valuing home cooking and spending time with children and immediate family.
So, if we cannot, and maybe do not want to return to our former ‘normal’ lives, what is our new normal from here on out, and how can it improve our individual and collective lives?
With the current lockdown in place and with significantly fewer people on our streets, it is apparent that our towns and cities will face significant difficulties when measures to ease the lockdown are introduced in the coming weeks and months. They simply are not designed for our new normal. Our pavements are too small, with only 36% of pavements across the UK sufficient in width to allow physical distancing, according to researchers at University College London. Added to the demands of walking at distance are long queues at grocery stores, limiting queueing space for neighbouring shops, yet alone providing sufficient space to walk home safely.
Using our streets differently represents our best opportunity to transition back to our collective lives as measures are introduced to ease the lockdown. According to Cabinet Office data, motor traffic has decreased by 73%, with road miles travelled comparable to those from 1955. This decrease in traffic demonstrates what is required to still enable essential services to perform. Therefore, we have a lot of tarmac that is currently underperforming, whilst people are finding it difficult to manoeuvre small pavements whilst adhering to physical distancing measures.
The following four propositions have been identified to enable safe use of streets for those walking and cycling during the current lockdown and as we ease measures. They aim to reallocate street space to people whilst enabling essential services to maintain their use of our streets. They will lead the way in helping the UK tackle the emerging environmental crisis, the fallout of which will be unlike any crisis previously. Whilst these temporary measures are intended to be quick, cheap and easy to implement, it is likely some measures will become permanent based on popular demand, as they contribute to the quality and safety of life.
1. HIGH STREETS
Our High Streets and mixed-use areas were struggling before the outbreak of the virus, and we will need to act quickly to protect them from failure and incubate their future success. Furthermore, it is likely neighbourhood High Streets may have a greater role to serve their local populations as some people will continue to work from home, and prefer local shopping compared with larger stores.
Additional space should be used to drive innovation in the public realm - to help facilitate businesses and to bring people safely together. Cafes and restaurants will struggle with limited table space. Additional exterior space can enable more alfresco seating. A combination of claiming excess street space, temporary street closures and parklets in car parking spaces could facilitate the creation of additional exterior space. During less busy times, outdoor (though physically-distanced) activities can draw people together, for group exercises on a Sunday morning, an early evening outdoor pub quiz or a Saturday afternoon gig. These social uses will help bring people together and encourage greater use of our High Street shops.
2. COMMUNITY STREETS
With much less traffic using our residential streets and an increase community activity, there is an opportunity and need to reclaim residential streets for the community – facilitating more walking and cycling, but also for parents and carers to teach children to cycle, and for children to play in the streets as formal play facilities remain closed.
Within certain zones, a single or collection of streets can be designated as a ‘slow street’, ‘low traffic neighbourhood’, or ‘play street’ whether during certain hours or longer. These streets will still allow local vehicle use and servicing, however through-traffic will not be allowed and vehicular traffic must give priority to pedestrians and cyclists and move at walking speeds. Much can be learned from other places, such as the extensive initiative in Oakland, California, where 10% of its streets (or 74 miles) will be converted to slow streets, and how to best implement these initiatives throughout the UK.
3. PARK LINKS
Parks have played an important role in becoming important spaces where we walk or cycle to enjoy escaping the confines of our homes. Unfortunately the journey to the park often contrasts with the enjoyable experience of being in the green, open landscape setting. As parks gain numbers as the warmer weather approaches, it becomes quite difficult to physically distance.
Creating additional walking and cycling space along key routes leading to park entrances could help enhance this experience and extend the qualities of the park into our streets. Lessons could be learned from other places around the world, such as Sao Paulo, where streets that link two parks across neighbourhoods and across the city are closed to traffic on summer Sundays. We can do the same here in the UK, defining temporary street closures or discrete lane closures during peak periods, whether it be on the weekends, mornings or early evenings to encourage greater physical activity whilst providing additional ‘park’ space. Imagine linking Hyde Park to Victoria Park across London on Sundays, or creating a network of pedestrian parkways linking St James Park to Castle Park to Riverside Park in Bristol each weekend.
Many of our most beautiful spots in and around our towns have been monopolised by car parks or dual carriageways, catering to the needs of the car out of perceived necessity. That necessity is now gone, at least temporarily. Therefore we have the chance to reclaim these spaces whilst enabling people to enjoy some spectacular views and settings. Almost every place will have such a setting, whether it is an area adjacent to a waterfront, a vista to a historic spire or a central street enclosed by a line of mature trees. Identifying these places will require local insight, and an understanding if vehicles could be displaced partially, temporarily or wholly. However, once identified, these places will become an attractor of people and temporary designs and layouts should promote physical distancing. This can easily be accommodated through temporary grid markers on tarmac or by introducing movable furniture and planters.
Many places give inspiration, from pedestrian weekends along Liberty Bridge in Budapest to Brighton’s recent closure of Madeira Drive along the seafront, giving cyclists and pedestrians use of this portion of the street during the day. With a closure for a defined period of time, such spaces could host more uses and temporary dwell spaces could be introduced - think of Paris’ pop-up beaches along the River Seine. A similar idea governed by distancing could create new environments drawing people and encouraging people to safely use our town centres.
Connecting the dots
The above four propositions should ideally be considered within the wider place, whereby an overall spatial strategy identifies how the four street types connect to one another and create a wider network of connecting streets for people. This will enable synergies between High Streets, public spaces and parks and neighbourhoods.
Get in touch
Based on international and national precedents, along with guidance for local authorities, places are legally able to make changes to make safer, healthier and life-saving streets. All we need is a little imagination and local leadership. The Urban Design Group offers this expertise as well as legal guidance on how to implement these initiatives. We would like to hear from you should your town or city consider implementing Life-Saving Streets and Spaces at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To support these propositions Urban Design Group has published Fast Urban Change - A How to Guide which sets out in the simplest terms the options available to towns and cities to make life more bearable under the current crisis. It signposts key UK legislation, including powers and legal instruments, as well as the practical measures that local authorities are introducing internationally.
Scott Elliott Adams
Scott is a passionate urbanist who excels in developing and promoting public realm-led design on a variety of scales, and bringing key stakeholders to the table to gain consensus and help progress projects. He has contributed to award-winning regeneration and urban design projects in the UK, Australia, the USA and beyond. Scott is also on the Uban Design Group's Executive Committee.
Christopher Martin is an influential urban designer and planner working all over the globe to help communities improve their public spaces, as well as supporting Governments to develop strategy, change policies, and make great places possible.
He is Co-Founder and Director of Urban Strategy at Urban Movement, and a fully qualified Urban Designer and Planner, with over 14 years’ experience leading complex urban projects; applying his expertise to public realm, streets and transport. He consistently adds value through ensuring the seamless integration of urban and landscape design with engineering and transport.
Chris is on the UDG's Exec Committee and Editorial Board for the URBAN DESIGN Journal. He is also a member of the United Nation’s ‘Planners + Climate Action Group’; a Trustee of Living Streets, the charity that champions walking in cities; a member of the Placemaking Leadership Council at Project for Public Spaces; a member of London design review panels; and he has been a lecturer and tutor at The Bartlett School of Planning and Architecture for a number of years.