Walking

Christopher Martin, our Trustee and Co-founder of Urban Movement, on cities and urban life after the coronavirus lockdown.

How the 'COVID Safe Streets' of today can become the 'Climate Safe Streets' of tomorrow.

Christopher Martin

For always roaming with a hungry heart

Much have I seen and known; cities of men

And manners, climates, councils, governments.

I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'

Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades,

For ever and forever when I move.

 

From ‘Ulysses’, by Alfred Lord Tennyson

I was reading this, one of my favourite poems, again the other day on a beautiful and sunny ‘lockdown’ weekend. I have always liked the feeling behind this poem because I too have always had itchy feet when staying in one place too long.

I love to travel to different cities; to observe, talk with people, and experience different ways of seeing. This is why I initially struggled with lockdown, yearning to ‘roam with a hungry heart’.

It is safe to say that I quickly found pleasure in my new hyper-local existence, however. I discovered my local streets which I had no cause to walk down before, and I began to recognise the faces of people in my neighbourhood - a look, becoming a glancing smile, to a nod and ‘hi’, and now a pirouetting chat as we keep moving but say hello.

This developing sociability of communities walking locally struck me, and echoed the “quiet good-humoured resolve” that the Queen mentioned in her address a couple of weeks into the UK’s lockdown. It is especially striking because of the fact that for all intents and purposes as I walk along the streets I am being tremendously rude - catching sight of someone and leaping into the road to avoid them. But still after this, I get a smile and a ‘thank you’.

And it is my leaping into the road that I would like to reflect on. The world will not be the same on the other side of coronavirus: like it or not we will all have had new experiences that will shape our behaviour, and alter our culture. The economy is going to be hurting, and so we will likely be hurting too, and it is one of my jobs to design streets and spaces that allow people to be healthy and happy, but also prosperous - with equal access to opportunities and experiences.

We have heard a lot about how we should be designing streets at the moment to allow people to take exercise safely - giving people walking and cycling more space so they can safely distance whilst maintaining sanity. I have come to term this the ‘COVID Safe Streets’ movement and it is right on the money.

This needs to happen now, and globally we are seeing Governments give designers the tools to do it; this is something that needs to evolve quickly.

We have to learn from this crisis though, and part of our exit strategy has to be to enable this immediate health crisis to inform our response to the deeper emergency of our environmental crisis. Coronavirus and Climate Emergency are linked as I see it, with a growing body of evidence connecting the places that have been hurt the most, with the places with the highest levels of lung damaging air.

We need to reopen the economy, but we should do it on a different basis from before. We need streets that will enable and inspire people to carry on walking and cycling that trip that they used to jump in the car for, because of the climate - sure - but also because of that sense of community that we have built, worked hard for, and enjoyed.

Christopher Martin

During this crisis we need to quickly roll out COVID Safe Streets, but when we are over the worst we need these to become the ‘Climate Safe Streets’ that protect us from the next.

We need streets that will nurture the recovery of our wilting economy. To paraphrase a deputy Major of Milan, if everybody drives a car, there is no space for people to move and enjoy the city, and there is no space for commercial activities outside shops, bars and restaurants - which are and very much will be a valuable part of the economy when lockdown is lifted.

We need to reopen the economy, but we should do it on a different basis from before. We also need streets that will enable and inspire people to carry on walking and cycling those trips that they used to jump in the car for, because of the climate - sure - but also because of that sense of community that we have built, worked hard for, and enjoyed.

To achieve this, the path is simple – if not necessarily easy. On the first day back to work for the majority of people, we will travel there by the easiest and most inviting mode possible - as was ever thus as my colleague John Dales likes to say. So, my job is to make that choice the one that is best for the planet, best for society, and best for you!

To achieve this I like to apply my principles of Hedonistic Urbanism to urban design.

We do SO much because it gives us joy and we find it fun - even some things we might look back on and cringe at - but we do them because it gave us pleasure, and human beings thrive on pleasure. So with this, we need to take space on streets to allow people to be safe for COVID Safe Streets, but then we need to use this space to make your journey to work on day one of ‘Normal Life 2.0’ an absolute joy, if you choose to get there in a way that helps everyone. If we can achieve this, then we will be making our streets Climate Safe.

I will sign off in the poetical way that I began. I love the poem Ulysses and it can teach us a lot about the mess we are in and our way out.

The main takeaway is about overcoming a situation that threatens to bring us down - just as the environmental crisis is threatening us - but the last line sums up my feelings for how we must behave to fight the Climate Emergency.

Strong in will, we must strive, seek, find, and not yield.

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