Daisy Narayanan, Director of Urbanism at Sustrans, on the opportunity presented by lockdown to build back better and prioritise walking, cycling and wheeling in our towns and cities

In 2004 I moved to Edinburgh after having lived for a few years in a beautiful small town in America. 

I lived in a gated community right next to a glorious lake with a gorgeous bike trail just off the lake and a gym and pool less than a mile away. Perfect conditions, one would think, to lead a healthy lifestyle? 

However, I would drive to the gym to get exercise. I would drive to the nearest shop a mile away to do my grocery shop. When I felt a bit low, I would hop in my car and drive a few hours for a walk in the mountains to feel better. 

Moving to Edinburgh changed all of that. I lived in the compact heart of Edinburgh surrounded by people out and about living, working and playing in the city. It was a shock to the system to be in a vibrant public realm starkly in contrast to where I had just come from. I walked everywhere, the hills gradually getting easier! I got a bicycle and enjoyed discovering this amazing city on foot and by bike. I felt healthier and happier than I had ever before. 

In Scotland, our town and city centres have always been the heart of our communities. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, in the last 50 years, we have allowed ‘unhealthy transport’ to be prioritised at the expense of more active modes like walking and cycling. This has not only had an impact on the attractiveness of our places but more importantly on our health

And as we face a collective challenge in finding our way to recover from COVID 19 and learn new ways of moving forward, we also have an opportunity to recalibrate our connection; with each other and with the built and natural environment around us. We are presented with a stark choice. We can return to status quo or we can build back better, drawing on learning from these weeks of lockdown and harnessing the resilience shown by communities across Scotland. 

The public discussion around how we make our places better and more resilient is not a new one. 
As the impact of the climate crisis started to get real, city leaders across the UK had started to address a whole range of issues such as air pollution, traffic congestion, flooding, physical inactivity, and social inequality. There was an acknowledgment that many of these problems arose from decades of car-centric planning in our towns and cities, and many cities had begun to take action to reduce car trips and make it more convenient for people to walk, cycle and wheel. 

HeraldScotland:

Over the past few years, I have been involved in collaborative discussions around the quality of our towns and cities; the environmental, social and economic reasons for creating people-friendly, ‘liveable’ places. Because for too many people in our town and city centres, the experience can a stressful and difficult one.

Overcrowding on pavements and the dominance of the traffic leads to an anxious experience for people with any kind of mobility or sensory issues. Making a street, a neighbourhood, a shopping district for everyone means creating more space, more time, more greenery, less stress, higher quality of placemaking. Creating places that people want to be in, rather than briefly pass through.  

And within the context of an added urgency through the declaration of a Climate Emergency, there has been a clear recognition that we need to build resilience to tackle challenges of the future.

The pandemic has brought this ongoing discussion and action into sharp focus and created an urgency to accelerate change, with examples of rapid, radical action taken across the globe. It has also shown how, when faced with a huge threat, individuals and communities can rise to the challenge. 

The City of Oakland launched Oakland Slow Streets closing 74 miles of roads (10% of roads in the city) to through-traffic: “…so that people can more comfortably use these low-traffic streets for physically distant walking, wheelchair rolling, jogging, and biking all across the City.”

The City of Vienna created nine temporary meeting zones, reallocating road space from motorised traffic to pedestrians in areas of high population density with narrow pavements and no parks or open spaces in the immediate vicinity. In addition, it fully pedestrianised 20 other streets.

In Scotland, we are seeing real change being delivered on our streets too. Spaces for People is a new, temporary infrastructure programme in Scotland which offers funding and support to local authorities to make it safer for people who choose to walk, cycle or wheel for essential trips and exercise during Covid-19.

Funded by the Scottish Government and managed by Sustrans Scotland, this £30m programme has awarded funding to local authorities right across Scotland. The guiding principles are ones of protecting public health, responding to local need, being temporary while ensuring that measures are inclusive and work for everyone.

The connection between better public spaces and economic recovery has never been clearer.  People want to go out, they want to connect, they want to once again share and exchange. There is also an understanding across sectors that making space on our streets for walking, cycling and wheeling is key to bringing back economic and social vibrancy to our towns and cities. 

Change is not easy or comfortable, but with a collaborative approach I am optimistic that we can find a way to build back better. 

The world has changed beyond recognition from that sunny September day in 2004 when I arrived in Edinburgh, but the need to create more people-friendly streets and neighbourhoods has not changed. If anything, there is a much stronger sense of urgency and an imperative to do so.

sustrans.org.uk