Amy Priestley, Urban Designer
Cycling infrastructure that women, groups of friends, families, young children and older people feel comfortable using needs to provide the greatest sense of safety and separation from traffic to be attractive and enjoyable.
At weekends, traffic levels in cities are often greater than might be expected, because those who would usually walk, cycle or take public transport to work find that getting about is now a family, social or group choice, rather than a personal one, with other needs to consider. For this reason and others, encouraging families to cycle for utility is vital to a successful active travel strategy, yet it’s rarely discussed or explored in policy.
Our recent StreetTour to Vienna showed the benefits of attractive walking and cycling infrastructure, and how this can be integrated into city streets. By providing generous walking and cycling spaces, alongside trees, street planting and greenspaces, Vienna’s streets are enviable places to walk and cycle as a group with family and friends (or even colleagues!)
Vienna’s characteristically broad streets, historic parks and waterfronts provided great examples of comfortable, relaxed and attractive environments that feel safe for a wide range of people. In places, strategic roads feel more like traffic-free green promenades.
Vienna’s Ringstrasse is a grand avenue circling the historical city core. The street was once the medieval city walls which, in 1857, Emperor Franz Joseph I ordered to be torn down and replaced by a grand boulevard. Today, the Ring boasts perhaps some of the most generous walking and cycling spaces a city can offer, and multiple, continuous rows of mature trees.
Traffic-free riverside paths and routes through parks are also to be admired, such as Hauptallee, a 4.5km dead straight and lit route that runs between Praterstern and the Lusthaus in the east of the city. According to wien.info, this historic route is lined by over 2,500 trees.
Back home, although many city streets are constrained in width, opportunities to create walking and cycling avenues have existed, do exist and could exist in the future.
Did you know for example that Victoria Embankment in London, which today has a well-used cycle track, was once envisioned to be a linear riverside park or avenue? Another example is Albany Road which frames the northern side of Burgess Park in South London. However, although the street now features a segregated cycle track, it does little to integrate with or take advantage of the vast park immediately next to it.
Victoria Park in East London is an example of both a useful walking and cycling route for utility cycling, and an attractive and popular park for the local community and visitors. Recent proposals to introduce vehicle restrictions on streets surrounding Victoria Park and Mile End Park could be a great opportunity to blur the boundaries between street and park and create a walking and cycling avenue.
Other opportunities to reimagine city streets may also arise. As more cities awaken to the many problems created by large volumes of motor traffic, oversized urban motorways and ring roads could be repurposed as grand, and green walking and cycling boulevards. I think Vienna helps to show how this might look.
John Dales, Director.
In the same way that the United Kingdom doesn’t have a formally codified constitution, Urban Movement has a number of foundational principles that we haven’t written down. One of the most important of these is that we need to get out more! Which is to say, we need to experience streets in all sorts of towns and cities in order to inform our own design work.
To this end, we undertake regular StreetTours to towns and cities around the UK and across Europe. These are trips of one to three days in length where we all go (at the company’s cost and on company time) to see what other places are like and what other designers have done there. We walk the streets, ride cycles along them, sometimes speak to local practitioners or campaigners, and then argue about what we see in some café, bar or restaurant.
In my view, StreetTours are the best possible form of ‘continuing professional development’ for people who do what we do; and if it turns out that this form of business is also a pleasure, then so much the better!
It's obviously a real privilege to be able to do this, but it’s also a large part of what makes us who we are. In the past eight years, we’ve been able to have one- or two-day trips to 15 UK towns and cities, as well as numerous half-day outings to various parts of London. We’ve also had two- or three-day StreetTours to the following 11 European cities: Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Paris, Aachen, Barcelona, Stockholm, Dublin, Seville, Munich and Vienna.
The Vienna trip was just last week, and over the next few days each of us at UM will post one photo from the city along with a short commentary about why they chose it. I hope you enjoy the reflections and insights they provide.
Connie Dales, Creative Assistant
Not being a parent myself, and not having the memory to remember my childhood response to urban infrastructure, it never occurred to me to think about how we raise children in our cities. I have, however, dabbled in childcare enough to know that practically everything is a threat to children, through adult eyes at least.
So why is the idea of Child-Friendly Cities such a fresh take? Childhood, after all, is one of very few things that literally all of humanity has in common. Since joining Urban Movement, this has become a major focal point of my research work. And it’s always heart-warming to come across a rags-to-riches tale of progressive city planning. So imagine my joy when I (figuratively) discovered the Albanian capital of Tirana and its mayor Erion Veliaj, who has masterminded arguably the most impressive urban transformation in recent years.
In his TEDx talk, Veliaj refers to 20thcentury Albania as ‘the North Korea of Europe’ and goes on to explain that, when he and his team were elected into office in 2015, they ‘inherited a city full of traffic, full of smog; a city of illegally occupied space, no place for children to play’. In spite of this starting position, and a complete lack of funding, they managed to commence a full-scale operation to ‘child-friendlify’ the city, relying on the good will of volunteers and of companies willing to contribute for free (the latter, I admit, would likely be more of an impossible dream were we to give it a go in London), and mobilising children and their enthusiasm. It was children who made their parents accompany them to a ‘no car’ sit-in in the city, and told them “no we need a bike, we need roller skates!” when they attempted car travel; it was children who happily (or so I’m told) volunteered alongside Veliaj to clean up litter in the streets; and it was children who were encouraged to take on the role of Household Recycling Rep, ruling with an iron fist when they caught family members disposing of plastic in the wrong bin.
I shan’t quote Whitney Houston, or the lyricist Linda Creed, but l think they may have hit the nail on the head. Maybe all we need to revolutionise the future of urban living is to have children on the forefront
To secure this shared prosperity, inevitably the City has to provide a menu of ways for people to get around, to cater for distance, speed, income, ability, and of course individual taste (for example). Importantly, however, the consequences of people’s decisions on how to get about must be transparent to them, to allow them to make informed choices.
Right now, in many instances, if you choose to drive a short trip for which you could otherwise walk, cycle, or take public transport (modes which are beneficial for the city and its people), that choice seems to have zero negative consequences for the chooser. What’s more, if you have a fully insured car in your driveway with a full tank of petrol the trip is (or seems) as good as free to you. But, this choice actually does have negative consequences for the collective good, and hinders the City in its ability to tackle some of the most pressing issues to do with climate change, urban growth, inequality, and inactive lifestyles.
The choice to drive imposes environmental and safety hazards on others at no financial cost to the chooser; including the health effects of local air pollution, the contribution to climate change resulting from carbon emissions, and death and injury arising from crashes.
If we are to enable people to make informed decisions, should we not make plain to them the cost of their choices rather than subsidise those choices? There are numerous examples of this type of pricing policy across the globe. In Singapore, for example, on top of the price of purchasing the car, insuring it and filling the tank you also have to pay about $35k for a 10-year Certificate of Entitlement. This goes some way to connecting the true cost of driving to the driver, as well as making people think harder about if they really need a car in the city.
António Guterres recently floated another idea to do with a large-scale shift in taxation policy. “Tax pollution, not people” he said, highlighting the idea that we move a nation’s taxation away from income tax on salaries, towards a carbon tax on usage and emissions. Issues of implementation aside, this would surely have an impact on people’s usage, by better connecting the cost of transport choices to actions and inevitably influencing behaviour. This is very similar to the idea of charging for plastic bags in the UK. Five years ago, many people never thought about taking their own bag to the supermarket - now the true cost of our actions has been better connected to our choices and has influenced our behaviour. Plastic bag usage in the UK has since fallen by 86% - quite effective!
What I am arguing for is not a wholesale change in the way that our taxation systems are organised – though mainly as it is not my area of expertise, rather than because I don't agree. What I think we do need to do, however, is to better understand the influence that policy, and importantly design, can have on our behaviour.
The framework of engineering is understood, and as a result solutions utilising engineering norms are accepted, often without further interrogation. This means that these solutions are frequently prioritised over more creative or behavioural solutions - despite the evidenced success of such approaches – because these solutions do not have a framework that is understood or universally accepted. The problem with this is that we are not utilising powerful tools that are available to us to influence people’s behaviour for the good of everyone, and protect our Cities from the most pressing urban challenges of our time.
I think we must harness this power, and by way of further illustration, the 12-year deadline the IPCC + UN report has given us all to make a meaningful reduction in emissions, is longer than it took Apple to get the concept of a smartphone in the hands of more than half the world’s population. No legislators were needed to drive this, just the intense allure of compelling design that changed people’s behaviour.
These concepts of Behavioural Urbanism and Hedonistic Sustainability are something that I am working with increasingly in the work that I do globally, and I will be posting more about this later in the year, and giving keynote presentations on it at the Urban Design Group conference in Birmingham, and Walk21 in Rotterdam in the autumn.
Walking is easy, one foot in front of the other and so on, the end. I know of a proposed ‘Year of Walking’ initiative that was cancelled, because it was considered too embarrassing to focus on something that everyone just does anyway. What next: a Year of Breathing? Well, since people are struggling to walk in safety and air quality is taking years off people’s lives, maybe we should have both. Just what is wrong with our walking conditions? Sometimes it is hard to put a finger on it as we all just get on with things. That’s why it is good to travel and experience other approaches.
So, my colleague Chris Martin and I went for a two-hour walk around Brussels, observing and debating the differences with UK practice. The basics were the same, but there were some stark and obvious differences which dramatically improved the experience of walking. The use of zebra markings at every side road gave us the confidence to step out even when cars were approaching and assume a natural priority to just keep walking. It made us smile every time it happened. Brussels is a big, and sometimes dirty city, like London, with serious congestion issues; and yet drivers routinely gave way to people walking thanks in large part to the addition of the great British invention that is the zebra marking. That’s why I’m happy to be working with Greater Manchester to try and bring this approach to the UK.
The other startling difference was how little delay there was for pedestrians at signal junctions and how much time people were given to cross multiple lanes of traffic. At one point we walked straight across several lanes of traffic with no stress or deviation. We had 20 seconds remaining by time we got to the other side, and I am a slow walker. Bringing in signal junction solutions that enable this level of service is a long-held desire of mine, and I’m currently developing a five-year plan of how to get there. It’s sad that it will take that long to get an option, but we tried with the ‘Turning the Corner’ campaign and failed to get the necessary progress; so we need to find an alternative way of achieving the same results.
There were many other more subtle differences, of course. As a registered street nerd, I was personally fascinated by the approach to tactile paving and specifically the use of the guidance surface, which seems far more legible and logical than typical UK practice. Another colleague, John Dales, is on a team that’s currently exploring an update of the 1998 UK tactile paving guidance for the DfT; and I’m keen to see what that process will lead to.
Walking in Brussels was largely a pleasure, and it’s important to note that this isn’t a holiday village, but a major international capital city. We can make walking a pleasure in the UK if we look at what is successful elsewhere and try to bring it all back home. International visits are a key part of Urban Movement approach. We love to share the best of what’s out there with clients and we work tirelessly to help get these things built or adopted. Anyway, you can have a look at what Chris and I saw, and our comments on it, by clicking on the links below.
Vanessa Lastrucci, Landscape Architect, Urban Movement
I have been thinking a lot recently about how we can better shape cities, to improve the way in which children can engage with them - creating streets and spaces that are safe and enjoyable.
As with so many urban issues of late, Enrique Peñalosa (Former Mayor of Bogota) has a great quote on this issue which summarises the design approach we could all take. He says that, “children are a kind of indicator species, if we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for everyone.”
This point is of course very acute; we have for some time been aware that we must design for the most vulnerable in society, to ensure the inclusiveness of our cities and make them accessible for all. This thinking arguably has not yet extended to children though - as designing for children is not an accepted norm by any stretch.
This idea gets especially interesting to me, however, when we understand that 26% of today’s global population is under the age of 15, and in fact, when you look at developing regions of the world, where most urban growth is happening, 40% of the population is under 15. (UN Population Prospects 2017).
So, if we are truly to shape places for the most vulnerable in society, should we not better understand what child-friendly cities look like, because children are especially vulnerable to their surroundings, yet they have little choice or influence over them.
We, and society as a whole, are influenced by the places in which we live - the design, systems, amenities, and social value of cities directly affect human behaviour. If we want the next generation to thrive, cities need to nurture them, and deliver the conditions that enable children to develop physically, socially, and societally. To me, these are two key areas to focus on.
MOBILITY - easy access to social and sustainable ways to get about, like walking, cycling, and public transport, are key to child-friendly cities. Parents know that children always need to be places - from doctor’s surgeries to sports practice - so delivering quality active, social, and sustainable travel options supports child development - and establishes healthy practices for later in life.
PLAY - personally I think this is so very important. We must make cities more enjoyable, more fun! Cities are inherently serious places, but human beings need to have fun, and here in lies a serious (excuse the pun) disconnect. We have to extend play out of ‘playgrounds’ and weave it in to everyday life - creating opportunities for informal play on streets and in public spaces, so that children can experience cities, and develop diverse social networks.
Amy Priestley, Urban Designer at Urban Movement
I joined Urban Movement almost a year ago, having previously worked for the London Borough of Waltham Forest on the Council’s 'Enjoy Waltham Forest' / ‘Mini-Holland’ programme. My design and engagement work on the transformation of Francis Road in Leyton was one of the most exciting projects I worked on.
National Walking Month is now upon us, which is a fantastic initiative from Living Streets that highlights the importance of walking - for people, for places, and for society as a whole.
Walking more improves our health, supports the local economy, helps people get to know their neighbours better, and is how you truly experience a place!
Much of our work is to shape places in ways that make everyday walking, cycling, and use of public transport more easy and enjoyable. We also walk lots ourselves: for transport and for fun. John Dales and Christopher Martin, respectively former and current Trustees of Living Streets, will (as previously) each be live-tweeting photos from a Walk to Work, on a day in May. They’ll cover whatever catches their interest: from infrastructure details, to the natural world, to coffee shops.
If you’d like to follow them on their walks this year, feel free to follow them on Twitter - @JohnStreetDales + @ChrisCities - and don’t forget to look out for the #WALKTHISMAY hashtag.
Click here to find out more about how you can get involved with National Walking Month.