As the pandemic wanes, will high streets return to their previous state, or will temporary changes to street space become part of the ‘new normal’? Dr Emilia Smeds from the University of Westminster introduces the EX-TRA research project surveying opinions on South Woodford. Photography by Geoff Wilkinson
In September 2020, a colourful seating area appeared in front of Tipi Coffee Co on George Lane, near South Woodford Station, where a couple of parking spaces had existed only weeks before. This South Woodford Mobility Hub was the first of its kind to be installed by Redbridge Council. The South Woodford Society and local businesses had their say about it, with a diversity of perspectives. Now the hub has been in place for 18 months, we are revisiting the debate.
Redbridge Council’s vision is that the Mobility Hub allows people to easily switch from one mode of travel to another, with many travel options offered in one place. Next to the seating there is bicycle parking and a parking bay reserved for an electric car club vehicle. You could, for example, cycle or take the Tube to the hub, and then travel onwards in a car club car. The George Lane hub also provides a new seating area or ‘parklet’ for local people to meet and enjoy the high street. It is free for anybody to use, not exclusive to Tipi Coffee customers. You might use it to take a break with your kids while out shopping, or as a meeting point.
Our EX-TRA research project (Experimenting with City Streets to Transform Urban Mobility) is interested in the Mobility Hub because it was implemented as an experiment to explore a new idea. An important issue is to what extent local communities are aware of such street space experiments when many have been introduced quite rapidly since the start of the pandemic.
Is the Mobility Hub a good use of street space? We are interested in all views, whether you like the hub or find issues with it. While the University of Westminster is collaborating with Redbridge Council and charity Living Streets, our study is independent. Redbridge Council Cabinet Member for Environment and Civic Pride, Councillor Jo Blackman, said: “We are keen to hear what residents think of the Mobility Hubs, to better understand how they are being used, and encourage residents to participate in the research to give their feedback.”
Understanding local opinions about the hub is only a starting point for a wider conversation about the future of local high streets. This is why our website includes a second survey about your views on streets in South Woodford and Wanstead more broadly, where you can place a pin on a map and comment on where you would like to see changes.
The pandemic has accelerated the redesign of London streets to provide more outdoor space for people (whether sitting, walking or cycling), rather than space for cars and parking. There is a finite amount of street space, so the question for the future is: what balance is fairest to make space for everyone?
In George Lane, that question has now arrived.
To take part in the street space survey, visit swvg.co.uk/extra. Residents can also speak to project interviewers, who will be outside Tipi Coffee Co (117 George Lane) on Thursdays this spring.
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