Majeed Neky from Living Streets explores how streets and neighbourhoods are crucial social spaces.
“I live on an estate at the edge of a small town. It is half an hour’s walk to my library, post office, doctors and polling station and I am in an urban area. Where I work there are post offices and libraries nearby – I know more people there than I do at home. When I lived in an area which had a baker, corner shop and polling station within a couple of minutes’ walk, I would walk there, and talk to and acknowledge people as I went. Now I just tend to do shopping on my way from work. I go behind my front door and only go out again if I really have to.”
The story of Viv from Worcestershire, received as part of Living Streets’ campaign, is by no means unique. We think of the shops and services she names – post offices, libraries, corner shops, even polling stations – as being at the heart of our communities. Yet all over the country, in urban, suburban and rural areas, people are unable to walk to them: for example, nearly half (47%) of those aged 55+ in Britain cannot walk to their nearest GP’s surgery, while 58% cannot walk to their nearest bank.
Without being able to walk on these essential everyday journeys, it’s much harder for people to make walking part of their routine, and health and the environment both suffer – while those without access to a car lose out. But there are also subtler effects on neighbourhood and community spirit: more than a quarter of British adults (28%) feel isolated, or have a friend or loved one who does, because of a lack of access to essential shops and services within walking distance.
Lynda, from Norwich, has seen this worrying trend escalate over time, remembering that ‘There used to be several shops here and a pub which you could walk into and know the people who ran them. We also had neighbours who lived here for a number of years so you could actually make friends with them. I don’t even know the names of my neighbours now.’ The street environment has a lot to do with this: in a recent study, people living in streets with high car traffic where walking was not the norm had 75% fewer local friends than those in streets with low car traffic.
Whether it’s a lack of access to shops and services, speeding traffic, cars parked on the pavement, cluttered or badly maintained pavements or inadequate crossings, it’s often street level issues that, for many people, make the difference between feeling comfortable to venture out and feeling isolated or trapped at home. The Government’s current overhaul of the planning system is a crucial chance to make sure that sociable streets where people want to walk are at the heart of how we design our communities, and make the ‘lonely street’ a thing of the past.