walking for everyone | summit report / 22 March 2022
COVID-19 presented both new challenges to how we use our streets and public realm as well as shining a light on old challenges too. Temporary measures were put in place for social distancing, walking, wheeling, and cycling. Should these now be transitioned to permanent features of our city and streetscapes? The realities of health and social inequalities experienced in urban settings and when using the streets are apparent.
The focus of Living Streets National Walking Summit 2022 was to explore how we can create truly inclusive streets for all and how to ensure marginalised voices are brought into transport planning and design. Urban Habitats was delighted to attend the event this year which was run in an interesting hybrid format we haven’t seen before – with in person hubs at locations around the UK as well as online making the event accessible to more people.
The event brought together delegates and speakers from across the UK and internationally. The day’s program provided the largest review of good practice, key policy changes, public engagement, and technical solutions on how to create better streets and neighbourhoods.
Designing streets for inclusivity and accessibility for all
Stephen Edwards, Interim CEO of Living Streets, and Trudy Harrison MP emphasised in the Opening Plenary that walking provides multiple benefits, we need to make streets more accessible and attractive to users. And healthier, inclusive, and accessible street design for everyone has co-benefits for environmental sustainability and planetary health also. There was a consensus throughout the summit that creation of a ‘culture of participation’ is essential for success. Through the newly created Active Travel England the UK government is investing over £2.5 billion in active travel and behavioural projects in England to increase journeys made by walking, wheeling, or cycling.
Susan Claris, Sally Copley, and Roberta Fusco whilst co-hosting Session 2: Walking for everyone introduced their new report, which sets out 6 key recommendations on how to address inequalities in current street design and practice. Walking and wheeling is for everyone: so streets should be made inclusive and accessible.
Session 3 explored some of the initiatives to break down barriers to walking, wheeling, and cycling, such as the idea of 20-minute neighbourhoods introduced by Patrick Harvie, the idea of localism, daily journeys will be made if daily needs are met within a small distance. Tiffany Lam from the Quality-of-Life Foundation reflected on the idea of the right to the city emphasising we have the collective power to reshape the process of urbanisation. COVID-19 highlighted the unequal accessibility of streets in London, where only 36% of streets were wide enough to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Inaccessible streets is something disabled people including wheelchair users have been long aware of and COVID-19 highlighted some of these issues to a wider population.
Leslie Kern, author of acclaimed book Feminist City, set out that street design it is not just about commuters, the lived experience of all users needs to be considered by those responsible for creating and regulating streets:
‘Why do people move through the city in the way that they do’
Dr Amit Patel, gave an insightful view into the challenges of navigating the streets from both his professional and lived experience as a severely sight impaired person. He talked passionately and informatively about what streets are like for a disabled person and how, for example, this can lead to someone having to travel away from their local area to a different high street as they feel safer there. Current design cultures exclude certain groups from using our streets, Dr Patel called for equity to be embedded into street design.
Design and plan with communities who use and live on these streets
What are towns and cities doing to adapt transport planning to become healthier and more equitable? Session 4 emphasised taking back the city streets for people and to address issues such as the unequal distribution of impact of air pollution and unsafe streets. Chris Boardman, Active Travel Commissioner for England outlined the mission of the newly created Active Travel England (ATE) to have 50% of all journeys in the UK walked or cycled by 2030. Alicia Pared talked about Barcelona’s super blocks, where space had been taken back from cars for the people, proposing this as a new urban model.
In Session 5 open inclusive and prosperous streets: what does good look like Robert Weetman noted that in addition to seemingly obvious fixes like dropped curbs, poor surfaces, and missing crossings we need to consider inclusion much more broadly. Bruce McVean, introduced the City of London Street Accessibility Tool and the square mile future city 2021 report, looking at how we can make the most inclusive and sustainable streets.
Build back better?
The closing plenary: Resilience and green recovery ensuring that transport plans are integrated and inclusive. The built environment around us is important for our health and well-being, the ability of people to choose active travel improves not only improves mental and physical health but also enhances social networks and commerce for local areas, an example of this is ‘Barcelona’s super blocks and the idea of 20-minute neighbourhoods. Dr Anusha Shah director of resilient cities ARCADIS stated ‘a city which is good for children, the vulnerable and elderly is good for all. We need a basic respect for human dignity and a diverse range of backgrounds and voices within the design process. As current design does not think of everyone!
Dame Sarah Storey made the point that we need to enable rather than just encourage healthy active travel choices, as if the infrastructure is not there then there is no point. Also stating that walking is a ‘Silver Bullet’, we need to start to view its multiple benefits for people and planetary health.
The summit of 2022 provided an invaluable insight into the diverse range of approaches and frameworks. Key themes emerged that designing streets for people is also a climate action, inclusive and accessible street design is imperative, voices of those marginalized by current planning need to be incorporated within design. Streets can promote a healthier environment, improve health and well-being of a population, increase social and economic activity of a local area.
What we learned
We already know that streets are the building blocks of our cities and places and have important links to health and well-being. Building in physical activity as part of day to day life. The summit flagged how the importance of equity and inclusion is increasingly recognised as important – yet at the same time highlighted we have a long way to go on this so it is vital for us all to put our shoulder to the wheel on this. Putting our learning into practice is central to Urban Habitats’ work. If you’d like to chat further about health and streets do contact us!