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Radical moment for future of towns and cities | Video + Summary

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The current situation presents an opportunity to make profound and lasting changes to the way our cities are designed, placing pedestrians and cyclists ahead of cars in the highway hierarchy, according to experts speaking at Place North West’s latest event.

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Infrastructure & Travel was sponsored by landscape architect Planit-IE and engineering firm Civic Engineers and attracted more than 300 live viewers. 

Place North West publisher Paul Unger hosted the discussion with a panel of professionals for whom enhancing the connectivity, accessibility and liveability of spaces is both a passion and a job. 

  • Linda Thiel, director of White Arkitekter’s London studio 
  • Simon O’Brien, cycling and walking commissioner for the Liverpool city region 
  • Prof Cathy Parker, professor of marketing and retail enterprise at Manchester Metropolitan University and research lead at the High Streets Taskforce 
  • Pete Swift, co-founder of landscape architect Planit-IE 
  • Stephen O’Malley, co-founder, Civic Engineers 

Key questions:   

  • Why is it important to create places that accommodate more than just vehicles? 
  • What lessons can we learn from other countries about how to design towns and cities fit for the future? 
  • What can the industry do to help design great places? 

Main takeaways:   

  • Covid-19 presents an opportunity to make lasting changes to the way our cities are designed 
  • Pedestrians and cyclists must be put ahead of cars in the highway hierarchy  
  • Messaging about the positive steps taken to improve towns and cities is almost as important as the changes themselves 

Stephen O’Malley said the Traffic in Towns report by Colin Buchanan, published in 1963, created a paradigm of segregation by promoting the use of the car and that Covid-19 could spark “a significant and timely shift in the paradigm”. 

He said the conversation around improving the user-experience in towns and cities for pedestrians and cyclists was not “anti-car” but that it didn’t make sense to “sacrifice a lot of space to one rather greedy user”.  

O’Malley gave the Cheshire town of Poynton as an example of how redesigning roads, and the way they are used, could positively impact a place. 

“Poynton was withering on the vine. We wanted to maintain the status quo with regards to traffic movement but we wanted to revitalise the town centre and drive up footfall and make it more attractive so that people would spend more time there. 

“That scheme completed in 2012 and eight years later, by any objectionable metric, we have done that.” 

Engineers could and should play a more creative role in the future of places, O’Malley said. 

“We can no longer just follow the same principles that have got us to where we are. It is not just about geometry, you need to find the soul of a place.” 

People who wanted to make certain changes, like prioritising pedestrians over cars, feel like “mavericks and heretics” but lessons should be learned from countries, including those in Scandinavia, where this attitude was the norm, O’Malley said. 

Linda Thiel drew on her experience of living the majority of her life in Sweden to draw comparisons between the design and functionality of roads there and in the UK. 

She said in Sweden pedestrians have always been “at the top of the hierarchy” which drives the speed of traffic down and allows people to use the streets and not be frightened. 

“I haven’t been cycling for five years in London because it is just too scary to go out on the roads,” she added. 

A major barrier to connectivity in the UK is the fact that cars were prioritised over pedestrians for the most part, Thiel said. 

“If I went to step out into any street in Sweden, cars legally have to stop as soon as you put your foot out but here drivers just put their foot down and honk their horn.”

She added that the Covid-19 pandemic, and the subsequent reduction in traffic levels presented a “huge opportunity” to address this. 

Simon O’Brien called the walking and cycling plans laid out by Government the most significant directives in a long time and said people need to be given local examples of changes that could improve areas of a city or town.

Simply pointing to examples in different countries didn’t work, he said. 

He highlighted the pedestrianisation of Bold Street as an example of this and added that the days when a “noisy and vociferous” minority could halt change could be over. 

O’Brien called on Government to up its investment in messaging.

“Unless the policy change is backed up by messaging it will just sit there in the corner. 

“Car manufacturers spend so much money on advertising because that is how you sell cars and, now, we need to get up to speed on this. There has to be coherent messaging and proper money spent on it,” he said. 

In terms of the design of streets, O’Brien suggested that children should be involved in the consultation process. 

“Ask the children because they already know the answers. If you ask a child to draw a streetscape, they very rarely draw cars because that is not what they focus on.” 

Pete Swift said a lot of the infrastructural changes that had come about during lockdown were driven by communities but warned that, going forward, they needed to be supported by legislation. 

“If you don’t have a holistic approach it will fizzle out. It needs to be top down and bottom up.” 

If a change is made, like the pedestrianisation of a street, leaving the door open to tweaking or reversing it at a later date is important, according to Swift. 

He described experimental traffic orders as a “new tool in the box” that allowed communities to see if something worked and then act accordingly to either make it permanent or find an alternative solution. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the approaches of councils towards certain projects. Swift gave the example of a town in West Cheshire, sandwiched between two major trunk roads. 

“The conversation began around transport and vehicle speeds and now it is about making a more beautiful village where people feel safer, healthier and happier.”  

Swift, an avid cyclist, said walking and cycling was “equality without politics” and described bikes as “the ultimate recyclable asset”.  

Towns and cities should be designed around coherent cycling infrastructure which Swift said provides people with freedom and gives them “the opportunity to travel, move, congregate and experience.” 

Prof Cathy Parker agreed with Thiel that putting pedestrians at the top of the hierarchy in the highway code, one of the government’s recommendations, was important and said some of the changes that had been implemented as a response to Covid-19 “could potentially transform places far beyond the pandemic.

“The care and love people have shown for where they live needs to be harnessed and we need to be more ambitious. We have got to catch hold of the positives and build on them,” she said. 

There is a misconception among some retailers who think when they are not trading well it is because people can’t park for free right outside their shops, Parker explained. 

“It’s a big myth we have to bust. There is lots of research which suggests if you take away parking provision, shops don’t suffer but changing people’s beliefs is a different thing.” 

This kind of research would be important going forward so that positive changes can be backed up with hard evidence, she said. 

Parker emphasised that collaboration between the different disciplines within a project team was vital to achieving an end result that works for residents and said that Altrincham was a perfect example of collaboration.

“The role of professions that create places is to realise the aspirations of those who use them.  

“Unless you collaborate and talk to other pieces of the jigsaw, we won’t get the change we want.” 

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The inverted hierarchy (i.e. peds first, private car last) has been policy for years and nobody has bothered to implement it, so I’m not holding my breath.

By Active Travel Trev

I’d like to see strict rules for cyclists whom seem to think they have right of way in pedestrian areas. Walking is becoming hell.

If they want more people to walk, where’s the public transport? Seriously, where is it? Where’s the every 10 minute metro service in Manchester? Or Leeds? Where’s the new metro lines being built? What’s places like Leigh or Roundhay to do? These people can’t afford the answer to build their car free utopia. Build railways and people will change. Don’t sit and eradicate cars with no alternatives.

By Richard