LONDON – In the city center of Wolverhampton, England, a big change is taking place that will see some of its most used roads closed to encourage more people to walk and cycle as more shops and other businesses are set to open up in town and city centres.
What follows then will be the creation of new two-way pop-up cycle lanes, pavements widened and roads pedestrianized.
Heeding to the British government’s call to encourage greater use of cycling and walking to aid in social distancing, Councillor Steve Evans, Wolverhampton Council’s cabinet member for city environment, said: “We have heeded the call and are now introducing a series of temporary, trial measures which will make it easier for people to walk and cycle into and around the city centre, as well as enabling social distancing for pedestrians and residents queuing at bus stops.”
It’s not just Wolverhampton who have heeded the call. Across Britain, cities from Belfast to Newcastle, are using, or have used the lockdown as an opportunity to experiment with road closures and the pedestrianisation of streets amid a broader shift in urban landscape.
RETHINK PUBLIC TRANSPORT
Geraint Ellis, a professor of environmental planning at Queen’s University Belfast, has spent a large portion of his career researching how urban planning is used to improve people’s health and wellbeing. He has seen a number of British cities use the lockdown as an opportunity.
“Quite a lot of places have suddenly shut streets that they were meant to have done before — partly as an experiment, because one of the issues when you close streets the pressures against it are: ‘Where will all the traffic go?’ And so on,” Ellis told Xinhua.
“If you close streets now, when there isn’t a lot of traffic. When traffic slowly comes back it sort of organically adapts to it. It generally goes elsewhere, when it has been done in experiments — there generally aren’t any consequences.”
Over the last decade, there has been investment pushed into public transport networks in cities across Britain. But the coronavirus pandemic it brings its own new set of problems that will make councils have to rethink transport in general, Ellis said.
“With public transport, it’s been the best option up until now, but under infectious conditions it’s the worst option. We need to rethink public transport. The default option would be to private travel in cars, because then you’re sealed if you’re on your own. But clearly that’s an option that we know doesn’t work in cities long term.
“That’s why people are coming back to the idea of more walking and more cycling and other forms of transport. I think that’s probably where we’re going to see the most change — as there already is a head of steam on that anyway,” Ellis said.
REDUCTION IN OFFICE SPACE
The coronavirus lockdown has also caused behavioural changes in the way people work, and where they work.
As lockdown was implemented in late March by the British government, the public were told to stay at home unless they were considered key workers. This saw a huge increase in people working from home, which greatly reduced the demand for the use of public transport and office space.
From a recent study carried out by StarLeaf on the public’s attitude towards current working practices, once lockdown measures are fully lifted, 60 percent of people would like to work from home more often than they did previously. This not only suggests a long-term effect to many economic sectors, but also a behavioural change that could have a lasting impact on public transport, office spaces and university campuses.
Ellis said that this could be significant to how our cities may change. He said that technology had already given British workforce the ability to work from home when possible, but due to the coronavirus lockdown it could have accelerated that process.
“A lot of the economies and landscapes of cities are driven by centralised functions. If you think of offices, they’re there because they have to be. Particular issues are universities. We have huge estates for teaching, but suddenly we’ve found out that with all that investment we can do quite a lot with what we were doing without them.”
Many of the public are finding it cheaper, and at times more preferable, to work from home.
“I think the knock-on effect, and it may take a while, but what happens to all that real estate. It will have to be reconfigured. We might see a long term change in the office space, that particularly could be changed and whether that gets converted into residential areas, I don’t know. That is potentially even more radical than just re-allocating different parts of the street for users.”
The lockdown has almost offered a glimmer of hope for those looking to push forward more environmental and sustainable city designs.
As streets have cleared across the globe, and air quality has improved due to a reduction of industry and cars, public opinion has swayed to look to sustain a cleaner environment for cities.
“I hope we really learn from that because overtime, if we keep going back to what it was, it will kill more people than who died in the (coronavirus) crisis anyway over time,” Ellis said.
“It’s been estimated that over 40,000 people die in Britain because of bad air quality every year anyway,” he said.
Ellis said that with this in mind, and a firm drive by the government for social interaction to take place safely in wide-open spaces, planners will look to push for more ambitious green space concepts.
“Ideally, planners should be thinking of what new green spaces could we have and which economic sectors may no longer be needed,” Ellis told Xinhua.
“If there is going to be a massive decline in car use which we all hope there is, that could open space in the city. And what do we do with that?” he asked. “Do we build more offices or do we actually try to improve the quality of life by using some of that space for green space and recreational facilities?”
Ellis, whose work partly focuses on sustainable and environmental planning, said that the lockdown has brought a political opportunity to carry out the “green recovery”.
“It’s a coming together of a policy window that’s just opened up. I don’t think it can be forced, but I think it might come at a very good time when climate change has become mainline and people knew that they had to do things.”
“But actually the inertia and other things were stopping that. If we could have some national conversation on a green recovery and what that might mean then I think that could give rise to loads of interesting things,” he said.