Redefining pedestrianisation for the urban age

Proposals to pedestrianise Oxford Street were abandoned due to political pressure.

Despite it being high on City Hall’s agenda, London’s air quality is woefully low. Pedestrianisation offers a viable solution, argues Barton Willmore's John Haxworth.

One of the biggest contributors to poor air quality in London and our other major UK cities is exhaust emissions from cars, which is made worse by congestion. It’s also what poses the greatest risk to residents’ health. Air quality isn’t governed by boundaries, so these problems cause pollution even in areas with less traffic, exposing people across Greater London to dangerous levels of toxic pollutants. 

To deliver long-term improvements and benefits to public health, we need to become bolder in our policy.  We need to go further than simply prioritising buses on major routes or building cycle superhighways if we are truly to curb congestion and reduce the number of vehicles on the roads. Investment into public transport – such as Crossrail – is welcome, but this must be effectively joined up with other urban networks. There have been some recent attempts to combat air quality more directly – for instance, the introduction of the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ). But encouraging lasting changes in behaviour and lifestyle choices requires more than punishing people’s bank balances. We need a carrot to complement the stick. 

Too many measures, like ULEZ, focus on designing-out the car from the city centre. What’s been missing from planning policy to date is actively designing walking and cycling into our urban environments in a strategic way. Copenhagen – arguably held up as the gold standard of a healthy city – has demonstrated that success is deeply rooted in policy decisions. The physical infrastructure of the Danish capital has created a society where walking and cycling is seen as the easiest, most cost effective and efficient way of getting from A to B.  

In the UK, pedestrianisation is an obvious solution. But, as we’ve witnessed only too recently with the abandoned proposals for Oxford Street, there is an entrenched wariness towards pedestrianisation and the extent to which it can make a tangible difference.  

This is nothing new. In 1998 plans to part-pedestrianise Trafalgar Square received similar animosity. Roll forward ten years, and the decision to prevent cars from driving in front of The National Gallery has opened up Trafalgar Square as a public space and an important walking route connecting the West End to Charing Cross, and beyond to the South Bank.   

"What's been missing from planning policy to date is actively designing walking and cycling into our urban environments in a strategic way."

Historically, the biggest argument against pedestrianising major parts of London has always been that it displaces traffic and congestion. But it’s time to rethink our definition of pedestrianisation and take a more holistic view – recognising it as a means of creating an integrated infrastructure network that would see people leaving their cars at home and opting instead for walking and cycling on a daily basis. 

As Copenhagen has taught us, we need to avoid falling into the trap of ‘pocket thinking’ and instead plan on a strategic city-wide basis. Pedestrianised areas don’t work in isolation and don’t make the necessary impact to facilitate cleaner, healthier lifestyle choices in the long term. Rather, our cities need pedestrianised networks to act as the link between the places where people live, work, shop and play, enabling them to move easily between.   

And they shouldn’t be swathes of concrete either. Landscape and incorporating nature into their design is vital to ensure they are holistically ‘green’. Greening our urban systems by creating a series of linear parks for walking and cycling supports not only the physical health but also mental wellbeing of pedestrians and cyclists  

Manchester has proposed a 1,000-mile ‘Beelines’ network based on this principle of improving pedestrian connectivity between communities and the city centre. All ten city districts are working alongside Transport for Greater Manchester to achieve a joined-up network aiming to put pedestrians at the fore of the city’s infrastructure. London needs to be following in its footsteps.  

Delivering a massively enhanced city-wide green network would help address not only air pollution and respiratory problems, but also other aspects of physical health – combating obesity and other related issues by encouraging more active lifestyles. It could also have a profound impact on mental health and wellbeing in cities, by bringing people together in new public spaces, addressing the loneliness epidemic and giving us access to more greenery.  

We need to redefine how we view pedestrianisation so that it’s less politically polarising. Only then can we take a masterplanning approach to consider how green pedestrian networks can better connect places, benefit urban communities and ultimately impact positively on people’s health and wellbeing.  

John Haxworth is a partner at planning and design consultancy Barton Willmore.