How Coronavirus Can Pave the Way for a New and Radical Urban Centre

Euan Sanders discusses the benefits of strategic planning for green modes of transport (pedestrians, cyclists, etc) and moving away from cars as a primary form of transport.

The coronavirus pandemic has destroyed the blueprint of normality. Mental health, the workplace, personal relationships, and economic growth, to name a few, have faced immeasurable impact. As a result, with the ever-depressing coronavirus journalistic discourse, it seems there are few, if any, silver linings. As economic meltdown ensues and a public health crisis deepens, one may ask, can any positive come of coronavirus?

Since 1920, the development of urban centres has centred on the car. Fast forward through to WWII, and automobiles displaced trolley buses and tramways. In the 1960s, the Beeching Report axed vast swathes the British railways, from the Edinburgh to Carlisle route, leaving the Borders without a single station, to the varsity line connecting Oxford and Cambridge. These cuts cemented the car as the preeminent mode of transport.

With the gradual reopening of British society in June, various local authorities applied their initiative, pedestrianizing streets and removing cars from city centres, increasing business capacity as the economy emerged from hibernation. Coronavirus has few silver linings, but it has provided a glimpse of a potential future. With the right policy application, a radical shake-up of urban planning, focusing on the pedestrian, bicycle, and dedicated public transport, coronavirus could pave the way for a new urban centre which precipitates sustainable economic growth, the reduction of carbon emissions, and the improvement of collective public health.

Pedestrianisation of urban centres alongside public realm investment would provide much needed lifeblood to the faltering British high street, as a recent Living Streets research project discovered that shoppers on foot spend more on average than individuals in cars. Moreover, Transport for London’s public realm spending resulted in increased turnover and financial viability for local businesses. This increased spending also precipitates greater inward investment, growing urban centres, and increased job prospects. In 1990, when Dublin was announced as the European Capital of Culture, the well renowned Temple Bar area experienced vast public realm investment, focusing on traffic management, pedestrian routes and public transport. The results were stark - a 300% increase in employment opportunities. When applying this evidence to the UK, increased pedestrianisation and investment in the public realm appears a more practical policy initiative to “level up” the British high streets, rather than the Conservative’s proposed digital services tax on online retailers.

This strategy also has clear ecological benefits. At present, the UK is on course to miss the 2050 carbon neutral target, as outlined by the influential Committee on Climate Change. Remodelling cities through pedestrianisation alongside public realm investment would form part of a wider climate plan to address this. In 2003, London made a significant step by introducing the congestion charge, which reduced the three main pollutants and supported investment. In Nuremberg and Oxford, both cities have seen demonstrable improvements in air quality levels by prioritising more sustainable modes of transport, whilst reducing inner-city congestion. By designing urban centres with an alternative focus, on pedestrian and cycle routes, alongside an integrated public transport system which connects guided busways with light rail networks and an expanded park and ride system, greenhouse gas emissions would fall drastically.

Boris Johnson recently launched an obesity public health campaign in Britain, as he admitted to being “overweight.” Radically redefining our British cities and towns around the pedestrian and cyclist would provide a much-needed outlet for exercise, with adequate infrastructure enticing people to utilise bikes and walk more often. The Netherlands is a keen proponent of this urban planning initiative, with cities such as Rotterdam and Amsterdam designed with the individual and cyclist in mind, with plain outcomes: higher life expectancy than the global average. The expectancy rate is four years higher than the US, and a slightly higher average than the UK. A study from Sweden also noted that when pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure is made more suitable for the population, the overall healthcare cost reduces significantly, as people are less prone to hospitalisation. This means it quite literally pays to invest in pedestrianised infrastructure and simultaneously provides improvements in public health. By undertaking radical investment in the public realm, local and central governments can tackle the public health crisis in a practical way.

British society has faced, and is facing, a range of challenges. With the dominance of online retailers such as Amazon harming independent retailers on the high street, the looming spectre of a climate disaster by 2050, and an exercise crisis, Coronavirus has provided a minute glimpse into what urban centres could look like in years to come. With radical planning reform, magnified by the pandemic, urban centres could go a long way to addressing these issues.

Euan Sanders is a recent graduate from the University of Edinburgh, after reading an MA (Hons) in History, with a keen interest in British political history, transport, pedestrianisation, and federalism.

He tweets at @Euands97.

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