STUDIO | Victoria Whenray on ‘rewilding our streets’

If you’ve been on social media this month you may have noticed a theme of self-improvement. Some have finally cracked that 10k run, others have brushed off the Lycra and started cycling. People are taking this moment of stillness to do something positive and the positivity doesn’t just end with people. We spoke to Vic Whenray, architect and Partner at Conran and Partners who has been observing how our streets have also benefited from this break in normality, and sets out her vision for our cities’ roads post lock down.

Walking around my home city of Brighton, I have enjoyed seeing a natural new order evolving, with many of the city’s streets, previously clogged with tourist buses and traffic, taking on a new lease of life.

For years now, cities around the world have looked to the Danish and Dutch car-free city model with some envy – practicalities, local politics and endless reams of red tape seem to prevent this happening at pace elsewhere. The pandemic however, has offered an unprecedented glimpse of car free life, with the constant hum of motorised traffic receding as pedestrians, joggers and cyclists take over the streets.

According to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), measures introduced by governments to combat the pandemic – including minimising traffic – have led to a 40 per cent reduction in average levels of the harmful nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution across Europe.

Many of our roads are clearly functioning better in the absence of cars and effectively becoming new public open spaces – which are formally lacking in many of our cities. Most would agree that our cities need fewer cars and more space for people, culture, outdoor space, community facilities and gardens.

As a studio that builds on the ethos of our founder, Sir Terence Conran, that good design improves the quality of people’s lives, we are already creating new and enhanced spaces to create a pause from frantic London life whilst supporting business and leisure activity through many of our master-planning and architectural projects. For example Portobello Sq in Kensington and Chelsea, Lower Marsh in Lambeth and Centre Point Tower sitting above Tottenham Court Road.

However, the current situation has pushed the door wide open to a new mindset and raised awareness with clients, consultants and city stakeholders to enable a deeper understanding and improved decision making on the power of healthy urban living within the city.

With this shift in transport and open space culture, we are already seeing promises from the Mayor of London for ambitious cycle and pedestrian based initiatives at the expense of cars and lorries. As the lock down rules ease and summer approaches, we are more likely to favour outdoor hospitality spaces – such as Madeira Terrace in my home city – so it’s vital that we now move to support these businesses by further removing cars to provide space for their customers to safely flow out into the streets to dine and drink, ultimately helping to restart the economy.

History tells us that there will be much resistance to such moves and with my Academy of Urbanism hat, I point to the example of Ljubljana where in 2016, the newly elected Mayor Jankovic made a canny move at the outset of his term, closing the historic city centre to traffic overnight and without warning with very simple concrete barriers (or so the story goes). Whilst initially met with unqualified outrage, this was forgotten by the end of his term as the benefits of a car free environment became tangible, and he was voted in a subsequent three times!

So on this point, I say to government and decision makers, be opportunistic and be bold. We know that fewer emissions are better for the planet. We know that walking and cycling is good for us. We know that trading businesses along a pedestrian and cycle route are more profitable. Use this time to observe the ebb and flow of your city and simply prevent cars back onto the streets that have clearly benefited from being ‘re-wilded’ during these unprecedented times. Don’t worry about the practicalities. In the first instance follow the example of Mayor Jankovic. A simple barrier – or better yet, a length of red tape – will do!