Thoughts from John Dales.
Safe and healthy streets campaigners and advocates of more liveable neighbourhoods often make a point of taking issue with the way we talk about vehicle crashes or collisions. News reporting and even official documents often feature phrases like “A car collided with the side of a house” or “Cyclist hit by truck”, where the impression is given (however unwittingly) that no responsible human was involved as driver, and that the offending vehicle somehow did something all of its own accord.
I am generally sympathetic with this line of thinking, since failure to mention the role of the driver tends to diminish the likely importance of human agency in the incident, in the same way as calling crashes ‘accidents’ does. That’s not to say, however, that the nature of the vehicle is not important, too. Indeed, the tragic incident at the Study Prep school on Wimbledon Common in July rightly put a focus on the particular type of vehicle, as much as the driver.
In circumstances yet to be fully explained, but reported as involving the driver having had a seizure, a car was driven off the carriageway, up a kerb, through some ‘guard’ railing, over the footway, through a metal gatepost and attached wooden fence, onto a small grassed area within the grounds of the school. In so doing it ploughed into a party of young children and others seated on the ground or at a table, finally coming to a stop against the school building.
From what can be seen in pictures of the damage to the car and building, it would seem as though the car was travelling quite slowly when it hit the school wall, and the aerial photography and videos published widely don’t show any skid marks along the roughly 25m-long path that the car took across the grass. In short, the indications are that the car wasn’t travelling especially fast as it made its way towards those enjoying their end of term party. Yet, it nevertheless killed two 8-year-old girls and injured 14 other people, at least one critically. The driver was arrested at the time and has since been rebailed until January.
While much remains unknown about this dreadful event, it is known that the car involved was a Land Rover Defender 110, weighing between 2.25 and 2.45 metric tonnes. It’s a type of vehicle classified as an SUV (Sports Utility Vehicle) and spoken of more casually as an Urban 4x4 or, back in the day, a ‘Chelsea Tractor’. This latter epithet carried with it the notion that the vehicle – which might well have the capability to perform well across fields and elsewhere off-road – is essentially out of place in cities. The Wimbledon incident is by no means the first to provide evidence that this may be the case, which should surely give us cause to reflect on the acceptability of such large vehicles on streets and in other places where lots of people are to be found.
As far back as 2004, in Volume 36 of the Journal of Accident Analysis & Prevention, authors Lefler and Gabler published research which showed that pedestrians were at far greater risk of being killed in a collision with a large SUV than in a collision with a conventional car (see graphic below). This was to do with both size and shape. And if you Google “danger posed by SUVs” you will now find a wide range of other research and reports all concluding more or less the same thing: that while the increasingly popular large SUVs may be great for the safety of those within, it’s bad news for those outside, especially people walking and cycling. Indeed, due to their higher centre of gravity, and therefore greater propensity to roll over, they may not even be as safe for occupants as they’d like to think.
The latest such article that I’ve seen is one by the US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) which says it’s an independent, nonprofit scientific and educational organization. Under the headline ‘Vehicles with higher, more vertical front ends pose greater risk to pedestrians’, the piece reports on a study of nearly 18,000 pedestrian crashes which found that, whatever their nose shape, pickups, SUVs and vans with a hood height greater than 40 inches are about 45% more likely to cause fatalities in pedestrian crashes than cars and other vehicles with a hood height of 30 inches or less and a sloping profile. However, among vehicles with hood heights between 30 and 40 inches, a blunt, or more vertical, front end increases the risk to pedestrians.
Summarising, the IIHS President said, “Some of today’s vehicles are pretty intimidating when you’re passing in front of them in a crosswalk. These results tell us our instincts are correct: More aggressive-looking vehicles can indeed do more harm.”
Big cars aren’t just a greater source of road danger for others than small ones, however. They also perform proportionately less well in relation to almost every other indicator relating to their externalised impacts:
These disbenefits have, however, been largely overlooked when it comes to transport policy, traffic regulation, charging and the like. Accordingly, Islington Council’s recent decision to apply differential charges for residential parking permits based on vehicle size, including – uniquely in the UK to date – electric vehicles is hopefully a significant step in the right direction. The London Borough’s seven-band scale of charges for a 12-month EV permit now ranges from £50 for the smallest battery size to £140 for the largest (see graphic below). Islington has also had a seven-band scale of charges for cars with petrol and diesel engines for some years, with the current range of annual charges being £100-£700 for petrol engines and £260-£860 for diesel engines. Differential charges by engine size/emissions are relatively common (e.g. Croydon, Ealing, Edinburgh), though not ubiquitous.
Islington’s move to charge for EV parking permits, and to do so differentially, is explicitly in pursuit of its wider policy to encourage lower private car ownership and higher levels of active travel. The Councils’ Director of Environment and Commercial Services has said that “This is one of many schemes we have introduced to achieve our ambitions to become a net zero carbon borough and create a cleaner and safer environment for our residents”. In relation to the specific issue of banded EV parking permits, the Council’s Assistant Director of Parking Services has also said that, “There are now very large electric SUVs and sports cars, where there is significant carbon footprint from the production and recycling of the battery.”
Rowena Champion, Executive Member for Environment, Air Quality, and Transport, adds that, “There’s more that we all can and must do to tackle the air quality and climate emergency, especially following the World Health Organisation’s decision to set tougher global air pollution targets. That’s why we’ve made significant changes to our current parking system, which encourage the switch to sustainable transport. The changes that we’ve made ensure that parking charges more accurately reflect the pollution cars create. While electric vehicles mostly have less environmental impact than petrol and diesel vehicles, they nevertheless cause pollution through the release of particulates from the brakes and tyres, which can be breathed in and cause harm. They also contribute to congestion and take up road space, making roads less safe for people who are walking or cycling.”
Summarising a truth that seems to be an inconvenient one for Government ministers, while EVs aren’t as bad as conventional vehicles in respect of tailpipe emissions, they’re at least as bad as cars with internal combustion engines (ICE) in other respects. For example, given that EVs are generally heavier and capable of accelerating more quickly than their ICE equivalents, it’s arguable that they are correspondingly more dangerous to other road users. I’m not sure how one would go about undertaking an overall cost benefit analysis, but might all considerations together mean that electric cars are little or no better than comparable ICE cars when it comes to their overall capacity for harm?
Islington isn’t the only public authority to have recognised the need to address the impacts of increasingly large cars in urban areas. As recently reported by Kim Willsher in The Guardian, from 1st January next year, the city of Paris is to impose higher parking fees on owners of SUVs in its battle to reduce pollution in the French capital, with vehicle size, weight and its motor taken into consideration. Councillors approved the measure unanimously, with one of the idea’s proposers stating that, “We would like the city of Paris to change the pricing of paid parking to make it progressive according to the weight and size of vehicles.” He added that the aim was “to focus on an absurdity: auto-besity … the inexorable growth in the weight and size of vehicles circulating in our cities”.
Paris officials report that the number of SUVs in the city has increased by 60% over the last four years and that they now make up 15% of the 1.15m private vehicles parked in Paris every evening. A Deputy Mayor with responsibility for public space and mobility policy, said SUVs were incongruous in an urban environment: “There are no dirt paths, no mountain roads … SUVs are absolutely useless in Paris. Worse, they are dangerous, cumbersome and use too many resources to manufacture.” The story also reported that Lyon and Grenoble are planning to take the same path as Paris.
What these Councils are doing is challenging our societal acquiescence in a ‘car culture’ that accepts the dominating presence of cars in cities as almost a force of nature: so commonplace we just don’t see it anymore. It is worth observing that, while the notion of Placemaking has gained increasing traction in recent years, and has embraced new thinking about the desirability and suitability of a wide range of features in the urban realm, from street furniture to trees, I’m not aware that the effect of the size and shape of vehicles on the quality of residential, retail or social environments has received much direct attention.
The rapid growth in the number of large SUVs on our streets is something that is a particular focus of the organisation adfreecities.org.uk. In a blog dated August 2020, it referred to a then recent report by the New Weather Institute and climate charity Possible, Badvertising – stop adverts fuelling the climate emergency. This revealed that, in 2019 alone, over 150,000 new cars were sold in the UK which are too big to fit in a standard parking space.
Adfreecities sees the way that manufacturers are marketing large cars as being a fundamental factor in the growth of their ownership and use. “The tantalising wild landscapes so common in adverts for these giant cars seem all the more deceitful when you look at the reality: that globally rising sales of SUVs are the second biggest cause of increasing CO2 emissions”, says the campaign. “Climate change and extraction are already devastating many of our natural landscapes. But that truth won’t sell many cars. And while these huge cars market themselves as being a safe choice for your family, they ignore the reality for everyone else, which is a more dangerous road for everyone who isn’t inside the car. The millions spent on SUV advertising mask the terrible truth that air pollution kills thousands of people in the UK every year.”
According to data recently published on Twitter/X by Adfreecities’ James Ward, SUVs accounted for less than 10% of new car sales in the years prior to 2010. But, in 2022, SUVs took six of the top ten spots on the UK bestseller list, and they take seven of those spots in the 2023 list to date. He tracks the rise in ownership to increased spend on advertising by manufacturers and observes that, in 2016, global greenhouse gas emissions from road transport started to rise again, having fallen in previous years. The correlation with the shift from smaller to larger cars is notable.
It’s not just the amount of SUV advertising that has changed, it’s also the style. That 2020 blog spoke of deceptive images of SUVs being driven off-road (even though hardly any of them ever would be), but Adfreecities has noticed a switch in the past decade to the direct advertising of large SUVs as entirely suitable for urban lifestyles, including the school run and trips to the supermarket.
Just this month (November 2023), Adfreecities scored a notable success when the Advertising Standards Authority banned two Toyota adverts for condoning driving that disregards its environmental impact. In a landmark ruling, the ASA stated that the Toyota Hilux SUV ads had been created without “a sense of responsibility to society” and that the ads “condoned the use of vehicles in a manner that disregarded their impact on nature and the environment”. This ruling is reported in a Guardian article by Clea Skopeliti which also quotes Veronica Wignall, a co-director at Adfreecities, as saying there’s a disconnect between the way SUVs are advertised – with campaigns often depicting them in rugged environments – and the reality of where they were largely driven. Research has shown that three-quarters of new SUVs in the UK are registered to people in urban areas. “It’s a cynical use of nature to promote something incredibly nature-damaging. Advertising for SUVs is pushing up demand for massive gas-guzzling, highly polluting cars in urban environments, just when we want streets that are safer and cleaner and an [accessible] low carbon transport system”.
One dimension of the Wimbledon Common tragedy is that the driver of the Land Rover involved might well have been a parent of one of the children at the school in question. However that might be, it is almost certain that a good number of the children at that school are typically driven there in vehicles that are bigger and more powerful than anyone really needs for life in London. But, as comedian Al Murray once observed, in his guise as The Pub Landlord, “Parents drive their kids to school to stop them getting knocked down by other parents driving their kids to school”. (For the record, he also added, “So, we’ll have a generation of flat-footed, asthmatic kids, with no sense of direction!”)
As I have previously written in Local Transport Today, almost all the objections that individual vehicle users raise concerning their use of street space (whether moving or static) – from congestion to cost – exemplify the concept known as ‘the tragedy of the commons’: whereby individuals acting in what seems to be their own best interests ultimately make things worse for everyone. In the context of that previous piece, I was calling on public authorities to assign and assert a proper market value to the public highway, and enable others – from local residents to businesses – to understand how they can all benefit from its better stewardship.
I thought then, and still do, that the Government and local authorities have a real opportunity to transform the economics, the politics and the equity of street space allocation for the common good. It’s therefore heartening to see that this is an opportunity that Islington and Paris are grasping, and which other UK Councils – like Lambeth with its Kerbside Strategy and Southwark with its recently-published Streets for People Strategy – are also getting to grips with.
Nevertheless, the sad fact is that the present UK Government is saying nothing at all that might be construed, in any way, as seeming to put downward pressure on car ownership and use, let alone pointing out the particular unsuitability of certain types of vehicles in urban areas. (The publication of the dismal so-called ‘plan’ for ‘drivers’ in October 2023 represented a further hardening of that Government line.)
It is not just me who is unhappy with this state of affairs. The Government’s own advisors, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), said as much in its damning 2023 Progress Report to Parliament. Noting that targets are being missed on nearly every front, with transport an area of particular concern, the CCC report can be summarised as saying, “There is little progress on transport emissions, no coherent programme for behaviour change, and the roads programme is being pushed forward without proper account of the carbon implications.” The Government has thus “made a political choice” to allow an increase in road traffic, instead of encouraging behaviour change.”
As an input to the Progress Report, the CCC commissioned consultants WSP to undertake research on Understanding the Requirements and Barriers for Modal Shift. Two of the six recommendations from this research seem rather relevant to my proposition in this piece, and are as follows.
Recommendation 2: Changing our relationship with parking/space. One of the main issues with implementing behaviour change campaigns to encourage modal shift is the low cost of parking. We need to consider how to pay for parking in such a way that the externalities of driving are covered by the costs of parking. At the same time, we can use the freed up space to improve the cities and spaces that we live in allowing more commercial and leisure opportunities.
Recommendation 3: Reframe the narrative around travel costs by creating targeted campaigns, specifically aimed at the perception that car use is cheaper than alternative travel modes. Car owners have the perception that car use is less expensive than alternative transport modes as they only really think about fuel costs. Information campaigns that highlight the real cost of a car trip (including elements such as purchase cost, maintenance, MOT, parking) combined with targeted, cheap/discounted public transport use could be a powerful tool to rebalance the travel cost narrative and change people’s behaviour.
One would like to think that the Government would take these messages to heart within its transport policy (if there actually is one…) and – urgently – get on the front foot as regards public messaging of the need for change regarding our car owning and driving habits. It could, indeed should, take a public health view about the harms created by cars, especially those of the increasingly large variety, just as with the edicts about drinking, smoking and obesity, and seek to restrict the related advertising accordingly.
Without clear, national messaging about the harms of driving, especially in large cars ill-suited to urban streets, we’re in danger of being upset for a few days about events like the ‘accident’ at the Wimbledon school, and then giving it no further thought once the news cycle moves on. This Government won’t do it, but perhaps the next might. It all depends on whether they listen to evidence or to ‘drivers’ and lobbyists.
I’ll leave you with the discomforting thought that Jaguar Land Rover is the official partner of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships (has been since 2015 and will be until at least 2026). Announcing the new deal in 2021, Jaguar wrote that “179 Jaguar and Land Rover vehicles will be used for event operations with Jaguar I-PACE, the world’s first premium all electric performance SUV, at the forefront”.
The Wimbledon school tragedy took place during the Championships, and you may be glad to know that the organisation tweeted their condolences “to all those affected by the tragic events”. But I’m pretty sure that the incident won’t have made the organisation reconsider its partnership with a brand who recently advertised a Land Rover Defender under the headline “Locked and Loaded”.
You might almost think they were talking about a deadly weapon…
The Urban Movement designed Venn Street in Clapham
was awarded the Great Street title for 2023 last night, by the Academy of Urbanism.
The assessors said: “The recent improvements to Venn Street have created a vibrant new area of sustainable public realm which provides an oasis off the congested Clapham High Street. A supportive local authority and the shared vision of owners and tenants have helped Venn Street fulfil its potential to thrive, now offering a wide variety of uses and activities to a diverse customer base. From its weekly food market, cinema, and live music venue, to its restaurants and shops, Venn Street proves how changing a small but well-connected street can have a ripple effect across the whole neighbourhood.”
Find out about the Winners here - https://www.theaou.org/articles/the-urbanism-awards-2023-winners
We all love a good story – it’s human nature. Stories have been used throughout history; to entertain, to teach, and to pass on information. The best ones have a simple narrative where nothing too surprising happens. Good versus evil; two star crossed lovers; or a tale of growing up. It’s all very comforting. We don’t mind the odd twist in the plot to keep us on our toes, but rarely does the lead character get run over by a car in the opening scene (unless you happen to be Brad Pitt in Meet Joe Black!).
Traffic Engineers and Transport Planners are no different. Our track record is littered with examples where we have been all-too-keen to tell – and be part of – a neat, simple story that seems to succinctly explain how problems facing the profession can be solved. Whether it’s the promise that a new bypass will reinvigorate our town centre or how shared space will civilise our streets or that a 20 mph zones will strengthen local communities, we are drawn to the simple elegance that these solutions appear to offer.
These stories are nearly always grounded in some truth. A new scheme gets introduced with great fanfare. This scheme is then distilled and simplified down to a single, specific intervention, removed from any form of context and packaged as the latest silver bullet. And we are all too ready to believe the hype, keen to assume that complicated environments and individualised design responses can be so easily generalised. But our streets are complex places. To suppose that we can reduce their requirements down to a snappy sound-bite is to ignore the truth.
I was reminded of this recently as part of a presentation that I gave at Urban Design London’s seminar on Supporting Different Types of Journeys. My specific section was on Practical Approaches to Designing Complex Streets. In response to a question that I received at the end of my presentation I mentioned that I don’t share what appears to be the prevailing view that all one-way gyratories are bad and that we would ideally change them all to two-way working if we could. As with other stories that distill complex issues down into simple narratives, this view is based in some truth. There is evidence to suggest that the introduction of opposing traffic flows will reduce vehicle speeds, which in turn is used as a proxy for improved road safety. Two-way working has the potential to reduce some journey times, particularly for those travelling by bicycle. Bus routing becomes more legible and pedestrians tend to find two-way streets easier to navigate. There’s just something a bit more ‘normal’ about them.
However, over the last few years we have worked on the transformation of a number of streets, from Glasgow to Brighton – existing one-way streets and gyratories, and even a two-way street. All of them have either remained or been converted to one-way working, and, in my humble opinion, are all the better for it. Let me be clear, I am not against two-way working, but I am nervous whenever I hear people suggesting that this will automatically deliver fantastic benefits that justify the often tens of millions of pounds that are being poured into them. And that any other options were simply not worth pursuing as, after all, how could they hope to trump two-way working?
The thing is, whilst one-way systems and gyratories have well documented limitations, they do tend to be highly efficient at moving traffic. Historically (and crucially), traffic engineers have used this efficiency to maximise the volume of vehicular traffic that can be moved. But there is an another way. What if, instead, we used this efficiency to help create the space we want for active travel as well as green and blue infrastructure? Converting a one-way network to two-way working will nearly always come at the expense of capacity, and that’s before we get to adding in all of the good stuff, like cycling facilities, rain gardens and pedestrian crossings. It’s an uphill battle from the word go. Sometimes it can be the right battle to have. Sometimes not. I’m simply suggesting that, like everything else to do with our streets, rarely is there only one answer to so many unique and complex questions.
My concern is that, too often, existing one-way working is instantly dismissed as bad and designers seek to remove it without first exploring the potential benefits. When designers are asked what a scheme might look like that took a similar hit in traffic capacity, included all of the benefits that a contemporary re-design could introduce, with improved pedestrian and cycle facilities, but which retained the one way working, the response is normally confused silence (I know because I’ve asked exactly this question in design reviews). I’m not trying to suggest this would necessarily be the right answer, but to not consider it at all seems bizarre. At this point ‘the brief’ normally gets blamed or some higher power that has already ordained the requirement for two-way working. But surely as professionals we are better than that – it should be our business to push for the best overall solution and to explain to others why things should be done differently?
If you come across someone who is claiming to have a simple, repeatable way of solving a problem as complex as redesigning our streets, then I would suggest that it should be approached with some caution (the classic “here’s the answer, what’s the question”). In fact, the simpler the solution sounds, the more caution I would urge you to apply. Let us learn from the mistakes of the past. Not just from the types of schemes that were built, but also the readiness with which we have believed that such complex environments and challenges could be solved with the simplest of stories. Let’s be honest with ourselves and embrace the complexity.
By Christopher Martin, Urban Movement
Article image by Chris Bruntlett Dutch Cycling Embassy
Oli Davey, Urban Movement
There has been an increasingly strong focus in recent years on how best to reach those members of the public whose input is often under-represented during public engagement, and quite rightly so. But I thought that it might be interesting and worthwhile to consider how we may go about doing a better job of trying to convince those members of the public who do provide their views but who stand in opposition to the sorts of proposals that we are frequently developing – things like low traffic neighbourhoods, segregated cycling infrastructure and controlled parking zones – which a quick Google will show can prove to be highly controversial.
Part of the reason why I believe that this issue doesn’t appear to get discussed a great deal is the inherent sense that, if we are doing these things properly, we shouldn’t be using engagement to convince people of the value of our proposals. Instead, we should be using the opportunity to enable members of the public to help shape them. But the reality is that, if we want to address many of the challenges that, as a society, we are facing (and which all levels of Government have clear policies to deliver), whether they relate to climate, housing, changing demographics, social mobility, public health, economic productivity, etc., we will inevitably be asking at least some people to make often reasonably significant changes to their lives, and this will generate some opposition.
My suggestion is that, by better understanding the thinking that informs these opposing viewpoints frequently held by those who disagree with such proposals, we might be able to improve our communications and thereby increase the success rate of these projects. As well as reducing the political capital that often goes into getting them (and keeping them) implemented.
A particularly useful resource for exploring this area is the work carried out by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, which he summarises in his book The Righteous Mind, published back in 2012. Haidt points out that acknowledging the fact that our moral values can differ quite significantly from each other is the first step toward understanding the challenges we often face when communicating with those who fundamentally have a different view of what a good society should look like. Perhaps rather obviously, he states that if you really want to engage with someone on their own terms then you’ll need to see things from that person’s point of view as well as your own. But the real trick is to actually understand the basis for these views. This can often be difficult when our proposals and even the issues that we are trying to address are potentially being dismissed by someone who sees the world in a very different way to us.
The Five-Factor Model of Personality (also known as the Big Five Personality Traits and well worth a Google if you haven’t already come across it) suggests that people tend to lean towards one of two camps – those who are inclined to be more open to new experiences and are intellectually more curious, and those who are inclined to be more conscientious and self-disciplined. Obviously, these are broad generalisations, but this model has been shown to be able to reliably predict the choices that people are most likely to make, including their political leanings. Importantly, whichever way you tend to lean, this is not a battle between good and evil, but rather two conflicting but equally heartfelt visions of what a good society should look like. And the resulting tension (when approached with a genuine desire to find a compromise) is actually necessary for a healthy democracy.
In my experience, entrenched opposition over new schemes is often compounded by discussions between the project team and members of the public with differing views of the world. These two ‘sides’, even with a genuine desire to listen, can sometimes end up talking past one another, unwittingly only addressing their own concerns associated with their personal view of how the world should be rather than attempting to empathise with those views held by others.
Haidt, through his own research and that of others, has come to the conclusion that people tend to build their world view upon a moral framework made-up of up to six distinct foundations. These are Care, Liberty, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity. What’s most important is that he has found that those on the left and right of the political spectrum focus on different aspects of each of the six foundations, and whilst those on the right give relatively equal weighting to all six, those on the left overwhelmingly prioritise the first three. This is why the right often feel that the left are, at best, being fantastically naïve in their views, whilst the left can feel like the right has simply lost its mind and / or its conscience.
In summary, those on the left tend to see the Care foundation as a fight for the oppressed, underdogs, victims, and powerless groups everywhere. For those on the right this is defined somewhat differently, with their understanding of Care focusing much more on the need to look after those who’ve already sacrificed for the group / wider community.
Liberty on the left most commonly focuses on equality, which is then pursued by fighting for civil and human rights. Conversely, those on the right see Liberty as the right to be left alone, free from government interference.
Everyone cares about Fairness, but there are two major kinds. On the left, fairness again often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality. People should get what they deserve, based on what they have done, even if that sometimes results in unequal outcomes. Pulling your own wait and being rewarded for your efforts are cornerstones of this way of thinking.
When it comes to moral concerns about Loyalty (such as pride in your country), Authority (deference to traditional structures such as family) and Sanctity (such as push back against consumerism), Haidt suggests that the right has an almost complete monopoly, with the left commonly seeing such concerns as old-fashioned and stifling individual choice, particularly of those from commonly oppressed groups (and we circle back to Liberty again). A rare example where the left does typically stray into this territory is around the use of Sanctity in relation to issues such as the environmental movement (climate change), along with ways of eating and exercising that aim to cleanse the body of toxins.
The above differences starts to make it plain why people can view the introduction of something like a low traffic neighbourhood so very differently? And why a failure to understand and act upon this can lead to a great deal of opposition to Council projects.
On a slightly different, but related topic it is also worth pointing out that, in general, the left tend to start from the point of view that people are inherently good, and that they will therefore flourish when constraints and divisions are removed. Whilst those on the right tend to believe that people are inherently imperfect and are prone to act badly when all constraints and accountability are removed. They would suggest that our reasoning is flawed and prone to overconfidence. Thomas Sowell’s book A Conflict of Visions covers this topic in a lot more detail, but this theory again highlights how the value and potential issues of any proposals for our streets are likely to be viewed very differently by different people.
Hopefully, you can see why even the best efforts from council Officers and their consultants to engage with local communities can fail to land in the way that they hoped? This can often be because those changes that are seen by the promoters of a scheme as an obvious good can be viewed very differently by others. Equally, the potential implications of some aspects of a project may go completely unnoticed by these same scheme promoters, but represent significant issues to certain members of the public.
By failing to recognise and address these differing views of the world we risk inadvertently fuelling opposition to our proposals and making the job of delivering on Government policy that much harder. It may not be a particularly glamourous topic, but I would suggest that understanding the basis for potential opposition to a project from those that may share a very different view of the world to your own is a good place to start. With this in mind I would recommend that everyone gives Johnathan Haidt’s book a go
Oli Davey, Urban Movement
In Eric Klinenbergs book Palaces for the People he makes the point that trust is the bedrock on which cities grow and thrive. Modern metropolitan cities depend on our ability to think beyond the family and the tribe and to trust the people who look, dress and act nothing like us to treat us fairly, to consider our well-being along with their own, and, most of all, to make sacrifices for the general good. He notes that this requires a sense of community that will only develop through repeated human interaction and joint participation in shared resources, not merely from a principled commitment to abstract values and beliefs. Building real understanding of the people that we share our neighbourhood with requires a shared physical environment. A place where people are brought together, free of charge, regardless of age, class, race or ethnicity.
Whilst his focus is primarily on the public buildings that we all use such as libraries and community centres, I would argue that no single resource is more important in this regard than our public spaces, primarily our streets. They help to shape our behaviour in ways we’ve mostly failed to recognise; they make us who we are and determine how we live, playing a critical but underappreciated role in modern societies. Whether we like it or not, the streets where we live, work and relax shape the way that we interact with other people and they determine whether social capital develops.
It follows that streets should be places where all kinds of people can gather. Rubbing shoulders with others outside of their immediate group of friends and family, helping us to understand and deal with difference, density, diversity, and other people’s needs. They foster cooperation and trust. It exposes people to unexpected behaviour and challenges stereotypes about group identity.
Just like good public buildings, a well-designed street fosters contact, mutual support, and collaboration. It helps to develop strong and supportive relationships. People will know their neighbours - not because they make a special effort to meet them, but because they live in a place where casual interaction is a feature of everyday life. They are a powerful way to promote civic engagement and social interaction. A good street should provide the setting and context for social participation as well as develop a sense of where we belong. They are the essential starting point for fostering trust, solidarity, and a shared commitment to the common good, supporting shared experiences and group mixing. Good streets should be places where we can learn to deal with our differences in a civil manner.
By contrast, poorly designed streets discourage interaction and impede mutual support. They inhibit social activity, leaving families and individuals to fend for themselves. They can leave a community fragmented and divided. When the design of our streets is poor people reduce the time that they spend in them and hunker down in their own homes or selective spaces. Social networks weaken. Crime rises. Older and sick people grow isolated. Distrust rises and civic participation wanes. Streets that segregate us are breeding grounds for stereotypes and suspicion. They encourage communities to be fractured and distrustful and increase prejudice and discrimination.
Most people don’t ordinarily set-out to build communities, but, as Klinenberg eloquently points out, when people engage in sustained, recurrent interaction, particularly while doing things they enjoy, relationships inevitably grow along with a strong sense of security. I believe that our streets are a fundamental starting point in this process.
We're thrilled that the North East Glasgow District (Cowcaddens, the Learning Quarter, the Merchant City and Townhead) Regeneration Frameworks have been approved by Glasgow City Council.
Urban Movement led the development of mobility and public realm strategies and the design for associated infrastructure projects, alongside a fantastic team including Austin Smith Lord (consultant lead) and Studio for New Realities, in close collaboration with Glasgow City Council.
These DRFs are 10-year regeneration plans with a series of short, medium, and long-term actions that combine strategic planning and placemaking with shorter-term operational and environmental improvements. The DRF programme is part of the council’s City Centre Strategy, which aims to develop the area as a more inclusive, sustainable, mixed-use place capable of supporting a growing population.
You can see them for yourselves below, and we look forward to seeing them become a reality on the streets of Glasgow over the next 10 years.
- Merchant City
- Learning Quarter
- North East Districts Combined
Housebuilding is slowing down – does this create an opportunity to rethink development, questions Christopher Martin, in the May edition of PRO LANDSCAPER.
Market conditions are causing us all to consider what we buy and how we spend; the same is true of developers and housebuilders. The UK’s three biggest housebuilders have all been cutting back on new projects as they adapt to the downturn in the property market, with fewer people buying new homes due to concerns about the economy and the jump in borrowing costs – which now stand above 4%, their highest since 2008 – coupled with considerable inflation and the rise in the cost of building materials. With developers hunkering down, new homes are not being built and land purchases are also being reined in, meaning the lag when things do start will be noticeable.
With developers hunkering down, new homes are not being built and land purchases are also being reined in, meaning the lag when things do start will be noticeable. Collectively, the UK’s three biggest housebuilders built almost 50,000 homes last year. So, at the core of the issue is the fact that this slowdown in construction and land acquisition will have a material impact on the UK’s housing supply, with the forecasted number of new homes being built falling by around 25% year on year in 2023. The fact of the matter is we are not getting the homes we need in the UK at this moment in time, but were we before? With this considerable pause in the housing and construction market, now is the time to (re)focus on what investment we need, rather than doing what we’ve always done. To take a fresh look at value and values, the connection between them and how we can put value to work for the values we have or strive for. In short, now is the time to build homes that cease to socialise the risk and privatise the reward.
The Housing Design Audit for England by Place Alliance UCL found that in terms of the homes we are building, housing design is overwhelmingly ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’ with some of the least successful design elements nationally relating to overly engineered highways infrastructure and the poor integration of car parking. This leads to unattractive and unfriendly environments that lack a strong sense of place and community cohesion as well as streets that invite car use over everything else. In turn, this has huge and spiralling environmental, social and societal implications. If everything starts at home, should we not rethink how we shape homes to positively influence the lives that grow within them?
First of all, through all aspects of the development process, and especially in terms of the design of streets, we must take a place and people first approach. We have to better apply the learning we have gained from the redesign of urban streets to the design of streets within development at a much larger scale. At the heart of the issue is parking; we have to better communicate the damage that parking has on community, and start to create places that support movement but prioritise people.
Oli Davey, Urban Movement
I’ve often thought that my profession – traffic engineering – is the one with the most under-appreciated (and under-exploited) potential to do good. And a few years back I read a book which does a good job of helping to explain why this potential so often fails to be realised. It’s called The Shaping of Us and it’s written by Lily Bernheimer. But let’s start with an abridged version of my case for traffic engineering.
If you want to make people healthier, wealthier and happier, to reduce their environmental impact and to strengthen social cohesion, I believe that no other profession has the potential to do so to the extent that traffic engineering can. This is why I have no problem telling anyone that will listen that the job of designing our urban streets is the most important in the world. The big problem is – as you might have been about to point out – very few traffic engineers seem willing or able to realise this positive potential. In fact, we’re commonly painted as ‘the bad guys’ of street design.
A big part of the explanation for our profession’s seeming inability to consistently create public spaces that realise their full potential concerns another profession that almost never gets mentioned in connection with our streets. Whilst it has become increasingly common for traffic engineers to recognise and incorporate the contributions of urban designers and landscape architects in their work, the profession of Environmental Psychology remains a mystery to most.
This specialism concerns itself with the relationship between people and the environments in which they live their lives – how these places impact our feelings, behaviour and identities, and how they shape the way we interact and communicate. The places we inhabit function like a secret script directing our actions. It’s a script we play a part in writing by choosing where to work, where to socialise and where we call home. But although humans have demonstrated huge power to manipulate our environment, too often we appear to have created towns and cities that work against our best interests.
The full potential of our streets will not be realised until we first understand that the design of every space in which we live our lives, including the street on which we live, the walk to the train station, our local high street and our kids journey to school, shapes us in ways that most of us seem unable or unprepared to grasp. And this (lack of) understanding applies just as much to other professions involved in street design as it does to traffic engineering.
Whether we like it or not, and whether we yet acknowledge it or not, we have the power to change ourselves by changing our streets. A greater appreciation of environmental psychology can enable us all make better choices.
So, rather than simply asking, ‘What can we do to our streets?’ us traffic engineers – and others – would do well to also ask, ‘What can our streets do to us?’.