Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets and Chairman of the Government’s Design Body Steering Group.
As the nation prepares to emerge, blinking, from Lockdown II, it is worth asking: what consequence is lockdown having on our relationships with those around us? And does where we live, influence this?
During the first lockdown, Create Streets undertook an indicative survey via social media of 438 people into the relationship between where they live and how connected they felt to their neighbours, both before and after lockdown. It was not a controlled survey so can only be indicative. Nevertheless, the breakdown of home types and locations is a reasonable match for the British population with only a modest skew. We therefore believe that, while not definitive, our findings are helpful particularly as some of them corroborate other findings in different countries and decades. We found that:
- We came together during lockdown. Our study found that people know more of their neighbours than before lockdown, with 37 per cent of people now knowing six or more of their neighbours, compared to just 29 per cent before.
- Good fences make good neighbours – terraced houses were the best COVID-beaters. Respondents living in terraced houses spoke to more neighbours than those living in other types of house or in flats. 40 per cent interacted with neighbours more than four times a week as opposed to 33 per cent of those living in semi-detached homes or 23 per cent in detached homes. Those living in purpose-built flats were the least likely to speak to their neighbours. 45 per cent of those living in apartment blocks did not interact with their neighbours in any way (over double the rate for terraced homes).
- Cars appear to stifle neighbourliness. Those who used cars as their main form of transport were less likely to interact with their neighbours in any form (31 per cent), during and after the lockdown, compared to those who walked (25 per cent) or cycled (13 per cent). Cars are also associated with reduced social cohesion at street level. Fourteen percent fewer of those with properties facing busy streets were likely to interact with their neighbours regularly than those who lived on quieter streets.
- Denser environments do not always guarantee tighter communities. Rural areas had greater levels of social interaction during lockdown compared to suburban and urban areas. Despite proximity, 32 per cent of respondents from urban areas stated they had no interactions with neighbours during and after lockdown. This was double the rate (16 per cent) of those who had no neighbourly interactions in rural areas.
- Access to greenery is strongly associated with greater neighbourliness. Our research found that both access to front gardens and access to private gardens were associated with many more neighbourly interactions compared to environments with no outdoor space. Of the respondents with no form of outdoor space, 59 per cent did not have any social interactions with neighbours, during and after lockdown compared to 33 per cent from the rest of the sample.
2020 has brought untimely death to many and economic hardship to millions. And worse is yet to come. However, there is a thread of a silver lining. Lockdown has also helped re-forge bonds of neighbourliness and reminded us of what matters in ways which should perhaps never have been forgotten. As we (please heaven) re-find normality in the months to come, can we try to hold on to some of these modest but important upsides? It is worth it. Knowing more of our neighbours makes us happier. So does living in places we find attractive and safe.
The next few months and years are likely to be a period of flux in the spheres of planning, house-building, and highways design. Amongst the certain or probable changes are;
- The government’s Gear Change Plan for walking and cycling has provided £2 billion of funding to encourage walking and cycling;
- The new Highway Code is also expected to encourage more sustainable transport with a ‘hierarchy of road users’ where cyclists and pedestrians are at the top;
- The new Manual for Streets 3 is expected to support street design which is less car-dominated, building on the important work of Manual for Streets;
- The Urban Tree Challenge Fund is supporting the planting of at least 20,000 large trees and 110,00 smaller trees in English cities and towns;
- The new model National Model Design Code (following on from last year’s National Design Guide) is expected to give local planning authorities clearer guidance on the creation of new places;
- The Government has said it intends to implement most of the findings of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission which I co-chaired alongside the late Sir Roger Scruton and which recommended creating a ‘fast track for homes’ that local people find attractive; and
- The vision set out in the Government’s White Paper, Planning for the Future, is likely to lead to local plans which are more visual and easier for the affected population to understand.
In this context, our indicative survey has several important suggestions for future highways and planning policy in order to support health, happiness, reduced land use, and public support for new homes. If we want to maximise public health and connectedness, highways policy and design codes should:
- Create gardens. Local plans and local design codes should require front, back and communal gardens wherever possible (these can be modest in size). These are associated with speaking to your neighbours more which in turns is associated with personal well-being.
- Create terraced streets. Local plans and local design codes should, wherever possible, support terraced homes. In our COVID survey, these are associated with speaking to your neighbours more than purpose-built flats or semi-detached or detached homes, whilst also being more space efficient.
- Create quiet streets. Local plans, master-plans, and local design codes should create streets which design out fast speeds. These are associated with cleaner air and knowing more of your neighbours.
- Support walking and cycling. Local plans, master-plans, and local design codes should create streets on which it is easy, pleasant, and safe to walk or cycle. Making it easy to get about by walking or cycling is associated with more neighbourly interactions.
Let’s escape from lockdown but let’s learn from it as well.