Imagining the city that locks its children indoors

Imagine a city that locks its children indoors...
A city that knows of the danger that can damage its young citizens, but would rather accommodate that danger than look after its own...  
Imagine a city where there's no space for children to play, but you can always park your car....
Is the city you are imagining... Amsterdam?!

Mark at Bicycle Dutch blog has taken the time to translate into English an incredible Dutch documentary from 1972 which chronicles the actions of Amsterdam's inner city children to claim back their local streets as a safe place to play.  The children in this film are striking not least for their articulate manner and belief in the possibility of change, but also because the conditions they were challenging in 1972 are - somewhat shockingly - not dissimilar to conditions for most inner city children in the UK today.  I recommend you take 10 minutes out of your day to watch the film;

I am sure the children of the Pijp would recognise here in London the issues of community severance, air pollution, road safety and a lack of safe space to play that they were campaigning against 40 years ago.  These issues really came to life for me at the recent Bow roundabout protests when I realised there were children's bedrooms overlooking this noisy, dirty, choking space where traffic from outside of the area is sped through at high capacity on its way to somewhere else.  Just as every action has a reaction so there are those who travel, and those who are travelled upon.  Of course, the city considers it vitally important that cars be allowed easy access to the centre, but the children at Bow roundabout do not derive any benefit from all these vehicles being pushed through their front yards.  It's worth remembering that in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, where Bow is situated,  just 33% of people have access to a car (and just 26% in neighbouring Islington. See PDF report.)

Housing overlooks the Bow roundabout in east London - a flyunder, flyover and high capacity roundabout where three cyclists have been killed in recent years. Image via Bing Maps.

Having watched the film about De Pijp, I began to think about my own neighbourhood of Bethnal Green in East London.  It too is filled with dense housing; a mixture of Victorian tenements and walk ups, post war and modernist social housing, and private homes.  Like De Pijp in the 1970s there are cars on every street, including small residential streets which are used as rat runs by commercial vehicles.  We're blessed with fantastic rail, tube and bus connections, but our streets are second rate.  On the road where I live there are two schools, a park, an elderly people's home, a train station, medium density Victorian housing and some shops.  The primary purpose of this street, however, is the storage and carriage of motor vehicles; there's nowhere to lock your bike, or to sit in the sun with your neighbour, or for children to play.  Off the top of my head I know there is a young family living in our basement flat, a family with 5 girls aged between 8 and 16 at the end of the street and a couple with a new baby living in the apartments opposite.  Does the street upon which these children live meet their needs?

A typical De Pijp street scene today, near the Albert Cuyp street market.

Mark's film strikes me as interesting for a number of reasons;
  1. Our urban spaces do not just "appear" but are the collective result of a series of design choices.  Speed limits, or whether or not a street should be a through road for traffic or not, are the consequence of decisions we should all play a roll in.
  2. Change may be difficult to imagine, but it is possible.  There is a man in the video who says it will be impossible to close the street; "It is for traffic!" he exclaims.  But the street was closed, the sky didn't fall in, and now most people in Amsterdam are entirely familiar and comfortable with such design choices; a similar process could take place here over time.
  3. Street design adds value.  My inner city mortgage-obsessed cynic watched the film about De Pijp thinking constantly "those run down houses must be worth a fortune now!"  It seems to me that you could spend a lot of money employing consultants and designers to tell you how to squeeze every drop of potential revenue out of new urban developments, when all you really need to do is ask the kids what they would do.  After all, who wouldn't want some trees, benches, bike stands and a place to play on their street instead of cars?
If London really is 40 years behind the Netherlands, perhaps it is time we employed a change in tactics, and simply asked the children who live here what they would like from the city they're growing up in?  There's so very much we could gain, and it would seem all we have to lose are a few rat runs and parking spaces - surely a price we can afford to pay?

Many thanks to Mark at the always consistently excellent Bicycle Dutch blog (also on Twitter @BicycleDutch) for taking the time to research, translate, edit this fantastic archive footage.

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Andy Macc said...

I'm sorry that someone has forced you to live in Bethnal Green with its inadequate, dangerous and unhealthy infrastructure. Perhaps you could escape and come and live up here in the north east. In my road we've all got front and back gardens and the kids play happily on the green opposite my house, where we held a lovely party for the Queen last year.

I guess that even if you could escape your Bethnal bondage there would be a problem with house prices. Given the poor situation and facilities I assume that your house in London is worth very little, whereas it would cost you about £170k to buy a 3 bedroom semi (with gardens and garage for your bikes and barbecue) up here. You seem to be trapped in so many ways; I'm so sorry and I send you my best wishes in this festive season.

ibikelondon said...

Hello @AndyMacc Thanks for your tongue in cheek response!

To be clear, I don't think Bethnal Green is inadequate, dangerous or unhealthy (although the borough does have an alarming recurrence of rickets!) We have strong community ties here too, and also had a party last year, for the Olympics.

That's not to say that the roads around our houses are safe enough though, and I suspect if you look carefully at your own area Oop Norf most of the roads where you live aren't fit for purpose either. I use that phrase by choice, of course, because it depends on what you think the purpose of streets should be - if it is just to store and convey vehicles then we're probably doing a very good job, but if it is also (and not instead of) that the purpose of the street is to help create community, provide space for play and create a safe environment then we're doing very badly indeed.

Do watch the video if you have the chance, I'd be interested to know what you think there is exactly here that we should *not* be doing?

shannon said...

I lived in the Pijp in Amsterdam for half a year, it was brilliant.

The sad thing is that London already has a tradition of street markets, but it feels like those are slowly being withered away. (Angel market in Islington is a good example of a car-free market).

London is not that far behind Amsterdam though, the street I actually lived on in the Pijp was fairly high traffic, just the side streets were slowed down, with nice paving stones and slower speed limits. It would be easy to implement here - people have to stop believing that is (a) impossible or (b) too difficult. It can be done, if it is done the right way.

Cases in London I have seen have been woefully off though. Recently I found myself on some newly paved Exhibition road in Kensington. Even though it has nice pavement and slower speed limit, there are car spaces all along it, making it feel unsafe for cycling. And by narrowing the road as a cyclist you have to squeeze up against traffic, including large coaches. There is some strange no-mans land between the parked cars and the pavement that would make an excellent dedicated cycle lane, yet it is not marked and also uncomfortable to cycle down due to pedestrians everywhere. (Note that there are still wide pavements for peds to use as well!) It’s a mess! And heavy vehicles and large coaches are using it, as it is the main north-south route that connects through Hyde Park. I’m not sure why this road was chosen for this type of calming, but its all wrong! So close and yet not there.

Of all the west London boroughs, Kensington & Chelsea is actually the absolute worst to cycle through, and sadly I’ve got to commute through it everyday. They seem to spend their money on social media instead of real road changes. ☹

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