Local infrastructural provisions to help people walk and cycle whilst social distancing are popping up across the UK.

Researcher Laurence Heijbroek explores what long-term impact these measures - introduced to keep people apart - will have on bringing people together in the future.

Laurence Heijbroek
here to help

I have been so impressed by the sense of community spirit that has emerged in my local area during this crisis. It reflects some of the positive side effects of lockdown experienced all over the country: the collective chance to look outwards, support the most vulnerable in society, and reassess our common values. 

Despite these amazing displays of community, there are other competing forces at play pulling society in a more private direction. Whether we emerge out of this crisis more united or divided depends in part on the actions taken now at this crossroads.

For several weeks, local authorities across the country have been busy implementing measures to create safe space for people walking and cycling and to ease post-lockdown traffic congestion. Reclaiming space for pedestrians and cyclists promises significant, well-documented physical health and environmental benefits. 

But what long-term social impact will these measures - introduced at present to keep people apart - have on future community connectedness when confidence in social gathering has been restored?

Prioritising pedestrians can increase the potential for casual social contact

Local authorities’ actions have begun to accelerate the reversal of the decade-long trend of prioritising cars and convenience over community and connection. 

New improvements to the streetscape can transform walking into a more relaxed and safer experience. Space taken away from cars can be handed over to shops, cafés, and bars to extend out on to the street. This can encourage people to spend more time inhabiting public space, through the provision of social spaces that invite everyone in society to participate.

A study by Transport for London exploring the social impact of streetscape improvements (widened pavements, outdoor seating, pedestrian crossings) discovered that areas where improvements had been made witnessed a 216% increase in activity (going into a shop, stopping at a café, sitting on a bench) compared to unimproved areas.

Through increased street-based activity people can become more open and available for interactions with others. And it is through face-to-face contact that trust, respect, loyalty, sympathy, co-operation - core qualities of social connection - are more easily developed.

outside cafe

Reducing traffic can increase social interaction between local residents

The incredible sight of empty streets accompanied by surrounding stillness has provided the visual stimulus to prompt a reconsideration of the impact of cars on our lives.

For all the benefits road travel brings, there are costs that come with convenience. Traffic intensity is inversely correlated with levels of social interaction between local residents. The busier the roads that cut through communities, the less likely locals are to know one another. And, notwithstanding lockdown’s resurgence of community initiatives, Brits are generally speaking less connected to their neighbours than in previous years.

One possible legacy of councils’ new temporary roadblocking powers might be that walkable neighbourhoods become more commonplace. By adding bollards or planters, these filtered neighbourhoods restrict the activity of cars and encourage people to walk or cycle, residents to mix, and children to play safely on the streets. This can boost contact between residents as the traffic-based barriers that divide them are dismantled.

And the more social contacts one makes, the easier it becomes to map one’s neighbourhood socially, increasing an individual’s sense of local connectedness and belonging.

quiet streets

More bikes and boots can boost social activity on high streets

Even before the Covid-19-induced economic downturn British high-streets were locked and engaged in a fight for survival.

Streetscape improvements can enhance the sought-after “shopping experience”, increase activity at street level, and increase accessibility. And shoppers who access high-streets on foot are found to spend more, and in a wider range of shops, than high street visitors arriving by car, bus, or bike.

Yet, new bike lanes bring benefits too. Whereas higher levels of motor traffic in a given area are associated with higher shop vacancies, research by British Cycling has found that areas with bike lanes can witness increases in retail sales of up to a quarter, whilst generating extra social activity at street level.

But this is also a matter of inclusion. The same study suggests that if interventions enabled the lowest income groups in England to cycle at equivalent Danish levels, it could increase mobility of the poorest families by up to a quarter.

Should the retrofitted bike lanes and pedestrian thoroughfares become permanent post-lockdown, they have the potential to increase both mobility and street-level activity. A small boost for beleaguered high streets in their time of need.

Urban interventions at borders can bring together divided communities

The degree to which community connectedness can be improved through the provision of new, tactical walking and cycling infrastructure depends in part on location. 

Western cities have for many years been becoming increasingly spatially segregated, divided along the lines of age, income, or ethnicity. If interventions focus on improving the centre of distinct city zones this may neglect to provide democratic space and opportunity for civil exchange and mixed social interaction.

However, by strategically intervening at the borders between communities, by introducing walkable neighbourhoods, creating attractive streetscapes, and increasing street activities in those places, this can fuel the complex interactions between different diverse groups necessary to build social trust and bring together divided communities at the end of this collective crisis.


Transforming the urban realm for good

The Living Streets agenda offers not only a message of hope from a health, environmental, and economic perspective, but it promises long-term social benefits.

Present political appetite for new walking and cycling infrastructure presents a concrete opportunity to implement this agenda, override perpetuating urban systems of disconnection, and permanently adapt cities to cater first and foremost for people.

But the extent to which social benefits are experienced depends on how far and wide measures are introduced. 

After prolonged social distancing, improving community connectedness will be absolutely necessary to help repair the social fabric, to support the lonely and socially isolated, and to ensure that the feelings of solidarity, respect, and kindness that at present bind us are carried through into a future, more united, resilient, and connected society.

It is my hope that local authorities and planners up and down the country are provided with the tools and funding to fully take this opportunity to transform the urban realm not just for lockdown but for good. 

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