Streets for People: A Path to Cleaner Air, Improved Health and Closer Communities?

Credit, Portsmouth Friends of the Earth.

Community Reporter Helen Salsbury reports on ‘Streets for People’, a public meeting in October 2018 that explored ways of making Portsmouth’s streets vibrant, safe, and healthy places for local communities, businesses, residents and visitors to enjoy.

Can Portsmouth’s streets be made ‘healthier, safer and pleasanter’? Is it possible to create ‘neighbourhoods where people choose to walk and cycle rather than take the car, leading to improvements in air quality, traffic congestion, health and well-being?’ Portsmouth Friends of the Earth coordinator, Rachel Hudson, is convinced this is possible and in October, Rachel hosted the ‘Streets for People’ public meeting, where keynote speaker, Megan Streb explored the possibilities with members of the public.

The meeting was scheduled to start at 7:30pm, but plenty of people were there when I arrived at 7:00pm. Tea, coffee and biscuits were on offer, and the general atmosphere was busy, friendly and vibrant. I had the impression of people who shared a common cause and enthusiasm. There was already a throng of people adding their own ideas to the large A3 pictorial sheets at the consultation tables.

Consultation table at ‘Streets for the People’ meeting. Image credit, Portsmouth Friends of the Earth

I browsed the colourful information display, discovering opportunities to be involved with community walks and tree planting, ways to discover local green spaces and cycle routes, information about making clean air a reality.

There are some troubling facts about the current air quality of our city, with several streets having Nitrogen Dioxide levels (NO2) higher than the legal limit. If I was in any doubt about the necessity of such gatherings as the one I was attending, this removed it.

Display board, ‘Streets for the People’ meeting. Image credit, Portsmouth Friends of the Earth.

Rachel Hudson opened the meeting with a brief introduction to Portsmouth Friends of the Earth. ‘We are a small group of volunteers who campaign globally and locally, with a particular emphasis on:

  • clean air
  • being bee friendly
  • and creating a walking-friendly city.’

She explained that people would be more likely to get out of their cars for short distances in a walking-friendly city, and that this would contribute to cleaner air.

‘Cars are the main source of air pollution and of personal carbon emissions,’ Rachel said.

The council has money to make clean air improvements and are interested in the opinions and suggestions which Portsmouth Friends of the Earth gather from the public at meetings and community walks. Although community walks are sometimes ‘purely for enjoyment’ they often play a significant role in identifying ways to improve streets for ‘walking and cycling with the aim of reducing car journeys and improving air quality’.

Rachel summarised the results of previous consultations: ‘local people are clear what will encourage them to walk short journeys. They want walking routes improved – more trees, signs, seats and lighting; motor traffic reduced and slowed; wider pavements; more and safer crossings; parking, dog poo and littering on pavements stopped; and respect between all pavement users. This involves many small scale changes rather than a few grand developments.’

‘Small scale changes do add up to make a big difference.’

The guest speaker at the meeting was Megan Streb, from Sustrans, a charity that aims to make cycling and walking easier. Megan is based in Southampton, but also works one day a week in Portsmouth.

Megan introduced the concept of ‘streets for people’ with a story. During her daily cycle journey through Southampton, there was one street she particularly noticed because it had children playing in it. Why? A couple of bollards prevented through traffic, making the street safe for children.

Image from Megan Streb’s presentation. Credit Sustrans.

Megan pointed out that streets make up to 80% of all public space in towns and cities, and  demonstrated how heavy traffic affects people and communities, contributing to physical inactivity, diseases (due to air pollution) and loneliness.

This last took me surprise. I hadn’t realised that studies had been conducted into the effects of traffic on communities. ‘Cars cut communities in two,’ Megan said, as people are far less likely to talk to their neighbours on roads divided by busy traffic.

Megan gave examples of how streets could be made neighbourly – places to linger and enjoy some company – and how closing streets to through traffic, either temporarily or permanently, leads to increased social activity, and provides places for children to play.

There are a number of ways that Sustrans (and others) aim to improve the quality of street life. These include traffic calming; temporary or permanent bollards to prevent through traffic; planters to stop pavement parking and provide seating and greenery; and secure cycle parking pods which also served to narrow streets or prevent pavement parking.

Megan gave the examples of Barcelona’s first ‘Superblock’ (where local access for motor vehicles is still permitted, but through traffic is not) and Time Square, New York (transformed into a pedestrian friendly space, to explain how analysing the function of a street can result in spectacular redesigns that favour the main users of a street – often householders and foot passengers.

Experimentation has proved that it is possible to divert heavy traffic, such as that previously passing through Time Square, without a significant impact elsewhere, and that reclaiming residential streets which have become ‘rat runs’ does not result in significant traffic problems elsewhere. The Barcelona ‘Superblock’ resulted in a traffic decrease on the inner, residential streets of 58%, with only a 2.6% increase of traffic in the four through roads surrounding the ‘Superblock’. This was due to ‘traffic evaporation‘, as it becomes easier for people to make short journeys.

Using Chichester as another example, Megan showed how pedestrianised high streets prosper, while in Southampton, cafes and restaurants get more through trade when there is less traffic. Megan closed her presentation by highlighting the positive impact of quieter roads on air quality.

In the audience Q&A, some expressed doubt about whether streets for the people is possible for Portsmouth and whether the council would listen. ‘People are wedded to their cars’ someone commented. Others wanted to know how to go about changing things.

Megan was encouraging. At the last census one third of people in Portsmouth didn’t have access to a car, and forty percent of households had only one car. People power is important: the more councils hear these ideas, the less radical they sound. Because of Portsmouth’s poor air quality records, the council is looking at this area, and it needs people to speak out to encourage change. The more local residents are involved in designing the changes they want to see, the less funding is required to make changes.

After the meeting I caught up with Megan, and asked her ‘What is possible for Portsmouth?’

After the meeting, I felt inspired by what I’d heard. Real change on Portsmouth’s streets feels achievable. And it seemed I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

Jess Parsons, Nature and Wellbeing Development and Outreach Education Officer, told me, ‘I very much enjoyed attending the Streets for People meeting. Megan’s presentation was inspiring and highlighted the hugely positive community outcomes that can be achieved through relatively simple changes to street layout and traffic management. I left feeling optimistic and intrigued by ideas and possibilities.’

For more information and opportunities to get involved see:

Friends of the Earth

Streets for People public meeting follow up report

Email to receive the Portsmouth Friends of the Earth newsletter, including news on Streets for People and community walks


‘What you can do to change your street’ – resources and articles

Megan Streb TEDx Southampton talk – The Power of Liveable Cities

Sustrans blog – ‘Urban villages at the heart of liveable cities

Megan’s Streets for the People presentation – Dropbox link


Clean Air Day 2018: Let Pompey Breathe

The Choke’s on Us: Passing the Buck on Air Pollution in Portsmouth

How Will Brexit Affect Council Services?


This story is part of our ongoing series from our #ReclaimTheNews team, a group of local residents trained in investigative journalism in partnership with The Centre for Investigative Journalism. The group now forms S&C’s Community Reporting team. Check back regularly for more news from the team and help us to spread the word by sharing their articles with your friends and networks.