How do we tackle loneliness and isolation in cities? Inspired by the Greenwich Peninsula Urban Village Fete, Sustrans Partnership Manager Megan Streb shares her thoughts on liveable cities.
‘Urban Village Fete’ is a name designed to attract a bit of controversy, as if it must be an oxymoron. And yet when I turned up to the event as a speaker, I found the event curated by HemingwayDesign to have the friendly busy-ness of a village fete, and the exciting vibrancy and diversity that a city can offer.
And that’s exactly what I was there to talk about that day—public spaces that give us the chance to interact with other people—that ‘village feel’.
Urban Village Fete is an alternative, contemporary twist on the traditional summer fete for the Greenwich Peninsula’s pioneering residents and all Londoners. The event is a celebration of the best in design, music, art, innovative events and modern craftsmanship.
I love events like The Urban Village Fete, because they show the possibilities of a space; similar to play streets, where residential roads are closed for a few hours to let kids play outside their homes and neighbours to talk. But it’s more than possibilities we need to see; it’s real change.
With air pollution, loneliness, childhood obesity and congestion ever growing concerns, we need more streets for people; more spaces for living.
And it’s being seen more in London and other cities.
Later that day, I had dinner with my husband at Neal’s Yard—full of people sitting with friends, eating, shopping and chatting.
We walked around Trafalgar Square, where an outdoor concert was about to start, and headed to The Mall with 20 metres of open road used by primarily tourists on a Sunday, many on their way to lounge in the evening sun in St James Park. We finished with a walk along Southbank back to the train station.
All of these are spaces for people—most had traffic designed out only within the last few years.
Much of this has been done to benefit tourists and the shops and restaurants that cater to them. Studies have shown that after pedestrianisation, people stay longer and revenues go up. This is great for me—a day visitor from Southampton, and for the bottom line of the cafes we ate in, but what about the residents of London and in other cities?
People want a ‘village feel’; especially just outside their own front door. Most want to know that their neighbours will keep an eye out on their behalf, and that their street isn’t a ghost town.
They want connections.
But making those connections can be hard.
As an American living in Britain, I know it took a fair few times of me putting the bins out and waving before my neighbours were happy to talk to me. It’s especially hard because I live on a street that’s become a rat-run, a common state for many of our residential roads.
And traffic cuts communities in two—whether it’s a bypass or speeding traffic down what should be a quiet street, we have fewer relationships when there is heavy traffic.
We need to create more spaces for connection; more spaces where people can sit, people watch, chat, roller blade, play, eat, and enjoy being around other people. I found a number of those spaces walking round London that day.
But we need to extend these beyond the tourist hotspots and into the residential areas, the smaller shopping precincts and rows of shops.
We need that village feel replicated across cities; we need more Healthy Streets.
We need more liveable spaces.
At Sustrans, we are working with communities to redesign their streets and public spaces so that they are more attractive places to live and travel through.