Opinion: Filtered streets protect our communities and give children space to play

This article was published in 2020, in Magazine 148.

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Anna Williams

Back in the summer of ’89, I lived in a house on a dead-end street. It wasn’t actually a dead-end street to me, because down the hill where the tarmacked road ran out there were three routes for pedestrians: an alleyway to a parallel road, a stony pathway past some good climbing trees which acted as a shortcut to the railway station, and a cut-through which led to a children’s playground and, beyond that, the town centre.

However, it was definitely a no-through route for cars. Because of this, the only cars that came this way belonged to residents of the handful of houses on the street. And, because of that, we kids ruled the road. In the summer holidays, lots of the children who lived round the corner on the much-busier main road would gather in our quiet street and sometimes we would play all day. There’d be cricket, football, roller-skating, marbles and badminton across our garden wall. We’d play kerbsie, polo, pom pom/forty-forty (insert your own regional name for this ages-old game) and try to beat the record for number of jumps on a pogo stick or Lolo ball. There were always bikes, skateboards and skipping ropes lying around – plenty of opportunities to stay active and lots of valuable social learning too, with parents casting just a few glances out the window as they got on with doing their own things.

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I’m sure many people reading this will be of an age to recall similar memories from their own childhoods, but it’s not the world my children are growing up in. Cars rule the roads around our way, although the people on the narrow pavements outnumber those in the driving seats. The other day, I saw a masked lady on a mobility scooter approaching; I stepped into the road to give her space to pass but it felt wrong to make my three-year old do so on a busy street so instead she wobbled one foot in front of the other along the kerb.

It doesn’t have to be like this. We can recreate the freedom of our past while freeing up the space we need for the present. We can protect our communities against the pandemic and build back better streets for the future. Many local areas already abound with pedestrian passageways and cycle cutthroughs; by adding some more of these ‘modal filters’ on an experimental basis during the pandemic, we can give people the spaces they need to stay safe, protect each other and keep active. In these quieter streets, drivers of motor vehicles can still reach their properties, visit shops or attend emergency calls, but residential neighbourhoods are no longer used as racetracks or rat-runs. In these stressful times, let’s help everyone breathe more freely for a while on their way to work or the shops. Let’s widen the pavements and build new cycle routes. Let’s create more space for the double buggies, the wheelchairs, the mobility scooters and the tricycles. Let’s give our children a chance to play.

Anna Williams is the Communications and Community Officer for Camcycle. This article was originally published on 22 July in the Cambridge Independent, which features a monthly column by a member of the Camcycle team.

Find out more about modal filters and the benefits they bring to communities on our website at camcycle.org.uk/modalfilters