Opinion

We can make our streets greener, happier and safer. This is how

Climate expert Jon Burke shares his "practical, inexpensive and rapidly-deployable" blueprint for radically reimagined 21st Century Streets.

Hackney, where Jon Burke introduced the 21st Century Streets vision, is among the boroughs with the 'healthiest streets' in London. Image: Hackney Council

This summer, I was lucky enough to catch Josie Long’s brilliant Re-Enchantment at the Edinburgh Fringe. What really grabbed my attention about the show was her joy at finally arriving in a neighbourhood with those seemingly rarest of features in modern Britain: greenery, decent housing, and even neighbours who’ll bake you a cake.

Understanding and creating the conditions for happy, safe, and climate resilient neighbourhoods in our cities is a preoccupation of mine, too. So much so, in fact, that back in 2019, when I was a Hackney Council cabinet member, I developed a practical, inexpensive, and rapidly-deployable blueprint that radically reimagined the streets of the borough, and called it 21st Century Streets.

So, what does a 21st Century Street look like?

They’re green. Very green.

As I recently wrote in the Big Issue, the heat-trapping steel, concrete, brick, glass, and tarmac with which we have constructed our cities actually magnify and lengthen our increasing number of global warming-influenced heatwaves.

Since we can’t rid our cities of most of these materials overnight, we need to vastly increase our investment in ‘green infrastructure’. This helps to cool our urban environments in three important ways: by providing shade, which can cool hard surfaces by up to 20C; through air cooling from evaporation through the leaves of trees, shrubs, and grasses, with a single, young, healthy street tree producing the same cooling effect as five room-sized air conditioning units operating 20 hours a day; and by ‘removing’ heat-trapping concrete, stone, and tarmac to deliver this greening, we are also able to address their storage heater effect, in which they slowly release their heat at night, increasing temperatures by up to 25 per cent.

But not all green infrastructure is equal, and that’s why 21st Century Streets follows the science, by committing to a minimum of 40 per cent on-street tree canopy cover alongside extensive ‘depaving’.

And the environmental contribution of green infrastructure isn’t limited to mitigating heatwaves. London may be experiencing record heat and drought this year, but it was flash flooding that was in the news this time in 2021. Fortunately, a single young tree planted in a small pit over a tarmac surface can reduce rain runoff by around 60 per cent and rainwater gardens are able to offset some of the effects of the seven million front gardens that had been concreted over the in the UK by 2015 alone.

And the superpowers of street trees don’t end there. They also moonlight as crime fighters and medics. For every 10 per cent increase urban canopy cover neighbourhoods can expect to experience a 15 per cent decrease in violent crime and a 14 per cent decrease in property crime. And the evidence for trees as a form of therapy is similarly compelling, with a peer-reviewed study conducted in 2020 concluding that high number of street trees close to the home is related to lower numbers of local prescriptions for antidepressants.

21st Century Streets put cars in their place

The Climate Change Committee’s sixth Carbon Budget focusing on surface transport is clear that, even with a fully-electrified road transport system, we still need to reduce the amount of driving on our roads by around 17 per cent by 2050.

To this end, it is necessary to ensure that 21st Century Streets either individually prevent through-traffic, or are part of a wider ‘low traffic neighbourhood’, which are also focused on eliminating ‘rat-running’. Not only does this approach actively discourage polluting short-distance car journeys that contribute to thousands of premature deaths and chronic illness in our cities every year, but it is also proven to reduce levels of local car ownership, halve the number of road injuries, and even reduce street crime.

There is also a wider social context and purpose to reducing the number of private motor vehicles in our cities. Research shows, for example, that the number of friends and acquaintances reported by residents is significantly lower on streets with higher volumes of motor traffic, and that the extent of people’s ‘home territories’ diminishes as motor traffic increases.

That’s why the first 21st Century Street proposal planned for the removal of 40 per cent of parking spaces, since only 60 per cent of residents on the street in question owned cars. This unlocked a large amount of public land for investment in significantly increasing bicycle storage, zero tailpipe emission car-sharing, electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and a new on-street mini-park.

21st Century Streets are sociable

As Robert Waldinger, director of the 85 year-long Harvard Study of Adult Development, summarised: “Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”

Proximity to street trees and ‘walkable neighbourhoods’ helps to address social isolation by increasing the propensity for informal social interaction, but access to green space also has a big role to play in improving public health. Unfortunately, however, Friends of the Earth research shows that over 1,100 neighbourhoods in the U.K, home to some 9.6 million people, have insufficient access to the green space.

That’s why the design of the first 21st Century Street allocated a significant proportion of the 40 per cent of road space freed-up by the removal of cars to create a new public garden. By locating it immediately in front of the green space-deficient local primary school, and occupying the entire road surface from pavement to pavement, it was possible to incorporate extensive additional tree shrubbery planting, natural play equipment that contributes to good cognitive and physical development in local children, and still provide direct access for walkers and wheelers to the independent businesses of the world-famous Ridley Road market in Dalston.

Back to the future?

While the design principles of 21st Century Streets might seem revolutionary, they’re not really novel at all. Leafy streets and an abundance of green space are certainly not new ideas for the ‘haves’ in our society. And although it’s hard for some to imagine how we survived without idling Range Rovers clogging our streets, cars are relatively new phenomenon. As Laurie Lee notes in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, in the 1930s “cars were few” and the streets were ‘filled up with bicycles and families on tandems carrying their babies in baskets’.

Another, better, city is clearly possible.

The pandemic hit almost immediately after I formally announced the inaugural 21st Century Street’s location, upending the programme and jeopardising its future, but as last year’s flash flooding and this year’s record heat and drought have shown, the environmental, social, and public health case for protecting our neighbourhoods against a more uncertain future is stronger than ever.

Jon Burke works with cities to help them meet the decarbonisation and environmental aspirations set out in their climate emergency declarations. He tweets about getting to net zero @jonburkeUK.

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