Dido Penny recalls life in one of London’s pioneer low traffic neighbourhoods and looks forward to seeing the benefits as Councils are asked to re-prioritise people over traffic our streets.
A few years ago I shared a flat on De Beauvoir Square in Dalston with a couple of friends. We were lucky in lots of ways – the flat had lots of natural light, views of the square, and a big living area that was great for parties. It even had a tiny garden. But one of the best things about living there was that we didn’t really need a garden at all with the square only a few yards away. We spent a lot of time out there in the summer – picnic breakfasts, afternoons lying in the sun and early evening cocktails where we would take it in turns to run in and get ice. We weren’t the only ones who loved it- most people who lived on the square seemed to spend a lot of time there and it was rarely empty.
There are lots of reasons why De Beauvoir works so well as a community space. There is a summer fair and various other events (such as the annual dog show), and an active neighbourhood association. And the square is well maintained, with a playground, lots of trees and a rose garden, as well as being a beautiful space to begin with.
But one of the main reasons that people treat it as an extension of their homes is the almost complete lack of any traffic. The whole De Beauvoir area is well filtered; it’s possible to access any street by car, but there are only a few designated through routes without modal filters. So although there are parked cars on the square, and a stream of commuting cyclists for a few hours every day, it’s pretty much car free. It is a real example of how much more pleasant pedestrian areas are, and how a lack of traffic makes people feel that they own the space around their houses and spend more time outside. There were so many things people wouldn’t do if the square was a busy roundabout – picnicking on the grass only a few yards from the road, chatting to their neighbours in the street, letting dogs off their leads or children play in the playground supervised from a distance.
I now live in central Hackney, and though I love the area, there is much less sense of communal space. But walking around the area during the lockdown when there was very little traffic save the occasional delivery van, I noticed that many people seemed to be using the space around their houses in a way that reminded me of De Beauvoir. On my daily walks around familiar streets, people were outdoors much more than they would be in normal times. I noticed several families on the same street washing their cars together, and chatting to each other from across the road (from a safe distance!). People were sitting in the little front yards between their houses and the pavement. I saw one couple having brunch on a table they had set up on the pavement outside their front door, complete with prosecco. The lack of any traffic didn’t just make the streets quieter and the air cleaner, but seemed to create a different atmosphere for the residents as well. On a sunny weekend it felt like this was one of the few positives in this strange situation.
Of course this is partly because many people were not at work and children not at school, and parks were either shut or limited to exercise. In an area where most flats have a small balcony at best, people were improvising to find ways to relax in the sun. But it was also a consequence of there being virtually no traffic to the extent that the streets felt pretty much pedestrianised. The streets in my area are in fact fairly well filtered already and set back from main roads. But despite this the streets normally feel just slightly too busy, and the risk of speeding cars is too real for them to feel truly safe.
In the past couple of weeks since the lockdown has been relaxed, it seems that unfortunately the traffic is returning to normal and I’ve noticed far fewer people using their front gardens and porches and the green spaces next to the blocks of flats. But the nearest park to me is very busy on weekday evenings and weekends as it’s now officially OK to meet friends outside. It seems that just a slight increase in traffic- or even just the perception that people will be driving again – makes quite a big difference. Reducing the number of cars in a residential area can have a big impact on the way people perceive and use the space around them.
The lockdown has also given many a renewed appreciation of their local area- I certainly found that being limited to where I could walk within an hour made me very grateful for the local shops and green spaces. And the importance of a local community and support network has proved to be of real value during the lockdown. Much has been written about how the Covid Mutual Aid groups have connected neighbours and created support networks ready to help those self-isolating. Even the weekly clap for Care Workers has meant that people feel more connected to their neighbours- in some cases actually seeing them for the first time. It would be a really positive outcome if this sense of community could be maintained and built upon.
Having read a little about the history of De Beauvoir square and why it is such a successful low traffic neighbourhood, I learned that the measures to prioritise pedestrians were a result of a long campaign from the local residents in the late 60s and early 70s. Following years of pressure on the council and demonstrations where residents blocked the roads, they succeeded in making most of the area filtered to traffic. It’s a virtuous circle where a determined group of people created a desirable area to live, which itself continues to foster a strong community spirit. I hope that the few weeks of lockdown, which, though so difficult in many ways, give residents in Hackney and other areas a sense of what the area could be like without cars, and that this is something worth fighting for.
What’s exciting is that changes are already happening. Hackney Council have already closed Broadway Market to traffic, and on the 22nd May announced three further road closures. This is in addition to the 120 road closures proposed in Hackney as part of the London wide StreetSpace plan. This is one of many reasons why Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, which many London Boroughs are now installing, and attractive low pollution walking routes such as the Central London Walking Network, are so important. Streets that prioritise pedestrians are not only safer and healthier, but also more fun to live in and encourage a sense of community.