Philip Glanville explains why people who believe in active travel shouldn’t assume that everyone thinks like them, even after the Coronavirus lockdown. Interview by Christine Murray
“What makes me a little bit nervous is that I don’t think there’s a new consensus out there necessarily for sustainable transport,” says Mayor of Hackney Philip Glanville.
I’m interviewing Glanville for the next edition of The Developer. We’ve been talking about the redevelopment of the King’s Crescent Estate, featured in the magazine. But as with many conversations, we’ve turned inadvertently to the impact of the Coronavirus and the changes underway in Hackney to boost cycling and walking as lockdown eases.
“It’s dangerous for people who support these interventions to assume that everyone thinks like them,” Glanville says of road closures. “All of these things are contested, and they do need time to be worked through.”
Hackney is closing more than 120 roads to vehicle traffic as part of, and in addition to, Transport for London’s Streetspace plan, with some closures under Experimental Traffic Orders, which allow residents to give feedback throughout operation.
Early moves during lockdown include the pedestrianisation of Broadway Market and the widening of pavements.
Glanville says the council’s policy response has been shaped, not by ideology, but to support resilience: “Communities are resilient [when they] know each other, they have access to services that they can walk or cycle to; or use through public transport.”
During the crisis, cars have been described as a lifeline by some residents, but Glanville stresses that “doesn’t mean the car is the long-term solution coming out of the crisis.”
The council’s policy response has been shaped, not by ideology, but to support resilience
“It’s almost existential. If your experience of the crisis is the safety the car brought you, then it’s restated why cars are important to you. If you didn’t have a car through the crisis, then you’re more likely to say, ‘I’m so glad I’ve been able to cycle or walk, because I haven’t had to take public transport.’”
“We’ve issued 4,000 keyworker, free, parking permits during this crisis to help the NHS and other key services. Clearly they’ve been valuable… They’re helping bus drivers get to work and doing really important things.”
“I appreciate that public transport at this moment is more challenging, but the idea of returning to a time where we took our intra-borough journeys by car cannot be the right answer, however nervous we might be about travelling on public transport now.”
On the closure of roads, Glanville is keen to stress that the borough’s approach is “evidence-led.”
“What I wouldn’t want people to think is that I’m trying to remove that element of consent and engagement. It’s about experimentation. It’s about using this experience to show what a more human-centred city can look like.”
At the moment, Glanville says two areas of focus are reducing high-speed traffic and interventions to support social distancing.
“There’s fewer cars on the road and people are hammering around the borough… we’re working with the police on that,” Glanville says. “And then there’s the redesigning of streetscapes and wider pavements. How do you encourage and support social distancing? How do you create more spaces to relieve pressure on our parks and town centres?”
Glanville believes it’s important to make these changes quickly in order to enable people to come together safely. During lockdown in neighbouring Tower Hamlets, the Hackney Police and local authority controversially made the decision to temporarily close Victoria Park to the public due to a perceived lack of social distancing. In our conversation, Glanville is keen to stress the important role that parks have to play in an urban, dense context.
“I think there’s a danger as a society if we see our fellow human beings as dangerous, as a source of virus, that we won’t ever come back to a moment where we have a shared experience. That’s why I think keeping parks safe is really important. Social distancing is important.”
“Recognising that so many people in Hackney don’t have outside space, don’t have balconies, live in overcrowded housing…” Glanville says. “The importance of exercise and wellbeing is really important alongside that stay-at-home message. Navigating that has been hard. We’ve not always got it right.”
“There’s fewer cars on the road and people are hammering around the borough… we’re working with the police on that”
As for second waves and future challenges including climate change, Glanville returns to the concept of resilience. “I hope that a more connected, safer, greener, more child-friendly borough is just inherently more resilient.”
For Hackney, that also means planting thousands of trees – attending a tree-planting was Glanville’s last public event before lockdown. The council has committed to planting 30,000 trees and increasing canopy cover by 50 per cent.
“Our political response is more broadly to what makes a good borough, a good society, a child-friendly borough, a borough that cares about climate change, that creates those moments to stop…”
“It’s a bit like the kind of international emergency recovery response of building back better and making sure that everything we do isn’t about returning to a normality that doesn’t necessarily work for people.”
“We are going to supercharge those types of intervention by taking people with us and explaining why, but also overlaying that community-engagement element and ownership.”
“Mutual-aid groups, volunteering and the way that faith institutions have repurposed themselves… that all needs to be part of it. Not the council alone.”
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This year’s Festival of Place is happening on 7 July 2020 – go to www.festivalofplace.co.uk for updates on tickets and speakers.