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Planners must be bold enough to pedestrianise our city centres

The threat of climate change is clearer than ever before, with air pollution a direct contributor that is causing a severe impact on human health, explains Patrick Johnston.

The threat of climate change is nearer and clearer than ever before, with air pollution a direct contributor that is also causing a severe impact on human health.

Across the UK planners must address this and the decline of our high streets. Encouraging citizens to enjoy safe, clean urban centres through pedestrianisation is the most logical approach. The evidence shows that pedestrianisation of city centres has led to a boost for nearby businesses and retailers. This has been seen at the Grassmarket in Edinburgh where, between 2013 and 2018, the local business improvement district company introduced festivals and markets on trial days in some streets during the year.

The result? More ‘liveable’ streets with cafés, bars and restaurants embracing an al fresco style – led to tangible increases in economic activity. From 2019, this prompted the pedestrianisation of these streets on the first Sunday of every month for 18 months.

Newcastle upon Tyne, my home city, is at a crossroads. The council must meet central government targets on air pollution while simultaneously combating city centre decline. One street has become a focus for potential change. Running past the famous Grey’s Monument (as seen on the cover of this issue) and Eldon Square Shopping Centre, Blackett Street is the main crossing point for pedestrians from Northumberland Street, the city’s high street, towards the cultural centres of the historic Grey and Grainger Streets. Blackett Street also serves as the main east-west bus route for 11 buses running through the city, serving some of the most populous suburbs.

“Enjoyment for all in city centres must be the aim of all planners everywhere”

It’s a narrow carriageway,  well used by taxis,  pedestrians and buses. This creates bottlenecks and congestion, which adds to air pollution. Unsurprisingly, this place where people and large vehicles interact is also no stranger to road accidents.

Although there have been trial closures (rerouting of buses into nearby streets), these have never outlasted the opposition from bus companies and their customers who rely on the services for access to the city.

Equitability of access could be used by bus operators to appeal against any permanent closure because many bus users are socially excluded (students, elderly, and the unemployed). The closure of Blackett Street could be presented as a physical and mental barrier to their enjoyment of the city centre, jobs and education. The topographical nature of the West End prevents expansion of the Metro to solve this problem.  

Enjoyment for all in city centres must be the aim of all planners. Opposition will arise to pedestrianisation, yet the inescapable threat of climate change requires such a civic action.

Patrick Johnston is a member of RTPI North East Young Planners


Picture Credit | iStock


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