Opinion: Inspiration comes from the Netherlands, Waltham Forest – and Peppa Pig!

This article was published in 2019, in Magazine 144.

Anna Williams (top); A family bike ride on Orford Road in Waltham Forest (bottom)
Image as described adjacent
Image as described adjacent

Pontevedra, Cheltenham, Brugge, Cardiff: these are four of the towns and cities that inspired us in the previous issue of Camcycle magazine, entitled Try Something New. Whether home or away, travelling to new places can spark fresh ideas on urban design and other ways to create human-scale cities that are pleasant places to live and work.

This summer, our Executive Director spent some time in the Netherlands, the world’s number one cycling country, where 27% of all journeys are made by bike (in the UK, it’s around 3%). Not only cyclists benefit from its successful street design: transport blogger Robert Weetman said that what stood out for him when he first visited wasn’t the segregated lanes or impressive cycle bridges, but the quiet, the beauty, the thriving town centres and the social communities. He writes that places like Amsterdam ‘see a person on foot, a person cycling, as the life and soul of the city’. The Netherlands also consistently ranks as the world’s top place for driver satisfaction, so although motor vehicles aren’t prioritised they clearly aren’t excluded either.

Dutch-style cities may be the dream, but more offbeat holiday destinations can have lessons too. One Camcycle campaigner went to Glastonbury – as temporary home to 175,000 people (more than the population of Cambridge), the festival is an interesting example of high-density living with peripheral car parking. What lessons could we learn about placement of amenities, moving lots of people on foot and ensuring those with mobility issues can get around?

My own most recent inspiration comes from none other than Peppa Pig World. Now those three words may strike fear into the hearts of those without small children (and possibly into the hearts of those with small children too!), but my experiences there have been overwhelmingly positive and I’m convinced that this is down to considerate and human-friendly design. Apple’s Steve Jobs once said: ‘Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works’. Peppa Pig World works so well that its design feels invisible. I could barely believe that I could feel relaxed wandering round a theme park with the family on a crowded bank holiday weekend, but I did.

Part of the park’s success was down to user-centred design based on a hierarchy of needs. Those with disabilities came first with step-free priority access (and assistance where required) on all rides. Young children were next with toddler inserts on each and every toilet, and creative queueing designs with dressed-up characters walking past. There was no forced walk through a gift shop and plenty of picnic tables where you could eat your own food. On top of that, the park was beautifully kept with creative topiary and abundant planting around the cartoon world of fibreglass TV characters, buildings and rides. Surprisingly, it was a really pleasant place to spend a day.

Imagine what our city could be like if highway planners and engineers took lessons from these places and truly put non-motorised users first. What would it feel like if pedestrians didn’t have to wait too long at crossings or rush to get over the road in time once the signals had changed? If cyclists could navigate junctions with ease and didn’t have to squeeze trailers and cargo bikes through tight barriers and chicanes? And if a section of one of the city’s busiest routes for cyclists and pedestrians (the Busway near Histon) wasn’t closed for nearly eight weeks with just a few days’ notice at the behest of a huge road-building scheme?

Paul Gasson knows what it’s like to reshape a community around those on foot or cycle: he was involved in the award-winning mini-Holland programme in Waltham Forest, London. We enjoyed his talk at our July meeting and are preparing a study tour to see the scheme in action. Waltham Forest has delivered healthy, liveable streets with thriving businesses and clean air. Let’s take that inspiration and use it to recreate our communities too.

This piece is based on an article published on 26 June in the Cambridge Independent, which features a monthly column by a member of the Camcycle team.

Anna Williams