Pens of the Earth: Streets for People

At Pens of the Earth’s launch night Helen Salsbury talked about rethinking the way our streets are used, and not just assuming they should exist for motorised traffic.

Reclaiming streets for people can have an impact on community, family, health, safety and our environment.

Concept and Philosophy

Think about a street near you. Who is it there for? Who are, or should be, its primary users? Cars? Residents? School children? Walkers? Cyclists? Shoppers?

Different streets will have different answers.

The concept of ‘Streets for People’ is that of analysing the purpose of a street – deciding who its primary users are – and redesigning that street for those users. It’s a worldwide concept, which has had some radical successes.

In Barcelona, a ‘superblock’ reclaimed a residential area by cutting off through traffic. The traffic went round it. Traffic within the block decreased by 58% and only increased elsewhere by 2.6%. This is called ‘traffic evaporation’. As it becomes easier to make smaller journeys, traffic decreases. Studies have shown that reclaiming streets for people does not have to make traffic worse elsewhere.

The superblock became an ‘urban village’ where walking and cycling was pleasurable, where people could meet and hang out, where children could play safely, where greenery could grow, and where the air quality was improved.

There are many other examples, and a number of organisations who are helping people to find ways to reclaim the streets of their city. These include Playing Out, Sustrans, Portsmouth Friends of the Earth, and Living Streets.

Why Do We Need to Reclaim Our Streets?

  • For health: People are far more likely to get out of their cars for short distances in a walking-friendly city, and to cycle instead of driving in a cycling-friendly city.
  • For air quality: Planting greenery and reducing car use improves air quality.
  • For community: Cars cut communities in two. People are far less likely to talk to their neighbours across a busy street. If we make streets a place to linger, we strengthen the community.
  • For safety: To prevent accidents.
  • To allow children to play.
  • For environmental reasons: Increasing greenery and trees, creating a ‘bee-friendly’ city, cutting down on pollution. All of these help us. But they also link our city with other green cities, forming a network for change.

What Can Be Done?

  • Reduce rat runs by preventing through traffic in residential areas.
  • Close off residential streets for a number of hours each day to allow children to play.
  • Close off school streets at drop off and pick up times to ease congestion, improve safety and air quality, and encourage children to walk or cycle to school. As Sustrans says: ‘Streets around schools are often dominated by idling cars and speeding traffic at drop-off and pick-up times resulting in air pollution and an environment that is generally unpleasant for walking and cycling.’
  • Create pedestrian shopping areas. (We’re lucky, we already have some! However these could be more extensive.)
  • Traffic calming: Reducing and slowing traffic, narrowing roads/widening pavements, making crossings safer, reducing speed limits.
  • Adding greenery and improving the environment with trees, plants, wild areas, seats, street art, etc.
  • Making walking and cycling easier and more attractive.
  • Providing more and better routes, with wider, well maintained paths, clear signs and cycle racks; preventing parking on pavements; stopping littering.

How Can Individuals Make This Happen?

By getting vocal, by getting help from an organisation (Portsmouth Friends of the Earth, Playing Out, Sustrans, Living Streets), by talking to the neighbours, or simply by taking responsibility yourself.

  • Portsmouth Friends of the Earth informs and connects. They hold consultation meetings and street walks with residents and feed the results back to the council.
  • Playing Out gives practical advice about how to help children play outside.
  • Sustrans (in partnership with Playing Out) are actively encouraging trials across the country to close streets at school drop-off and pick up times. ‘By demonstrating that closing roads outside schools at drop-off and pick-up times is achievable, measuring the impact and sharing our findings, we aim to encourage more regular street closures and inspire more schools to try this approach. Ultimately, we want to affect a permanent change in the way children travel to school.’
  • Living Streets, a walking charity, has demonstrated the commercial benefits to high streets of improved walking routes, added greenery and sustainable forms of transport.
  • Alternatively, you can take responsibility for your own street, picking up litter, getting together with your neighbours for planting days, altering hard driveways to something more natural where water can drain and plants can grow, or having a green roof.

Things Are Already Happening

On Sunday 21 July 2019, Francis Avenue in Southsea was closed for the afternoon to allow children to play out. This was the result of a campaign lead by local resident Laura Mellor. It was approved by Portsmouth City Council (PCC).

Laura Mellor, who continues to organise playing out events for her street, recently told me, ‘PCC are working on a policy for play streets to make it easy for residents to apply online. It’s nearly ready. … In the meantime if people are interested, the first steps are: talk to your neighbours informally to establish interest, do stuff outside your front door, even if it’s just reading the paper or watching your kids chalk the pavement. Say hi to passers-by, etc. And … join the Portsmouth Playing Out Facebook page.’

Find out more:

  • Watch this Tedx video: Megan Streb, ‘The Power of Liveable Cities’. ‘Why is it that despite us living closer together and having more access to communication tools, we feel more disconnected? In this inspirational and empowering talk, Megan Streb from Sustrans explores how we can be more connected to ourselves, our community, and our environment.’
  • Streets for People 2. Our environmental specialist Megan Howson expands on the ideas in this article.
  • Article about Francis Avenue in the Portsmouth News.
  • Report on Streets for People sent from Portsmouth Friends of the Earth to Portsmouth City CouncilPens of the Earth is about environmental tales from a positive Portsmouth – encouraging writers to celebrate existing environmental initiatives, and to imagine what might be. Read more at their website:

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