Spaces for People – An overview and comments going forward

March 22, 2021

This blog forms our emerging opinions on Edinburgh Council’s Spaces for People programme.

Intro and Background

The current pandemic is the most significant interruption to ‘normal’ forms of transport and travel across Edinburgh that we have seen in the modern era.

In April 2020, the Scottish Government launched the Spaces for People programme.  It did so:

to better enable physical distancing, the Scottish Government will fully fund a new infrastructure programme for pop-up walking and cycling routes or temporary improvements to existing routes. This will be supported by a package of guidance and support to local authorities from Transport Scotland and Sustrans Scotland for improvements such as widened pavements and cycle lanes.”

Furthermore, it noted,

across the world, cities have seen increased rates of cycling as the number of car journeys have declined due to COVID restrictions – and many cities have responded to this by reallocating road space to better enable this shift and make it safer for people who choose to walk, cycle or wheel for essential trips or for exercise. Scotland’s towns and cities will now be able to do the same.”

The recently approved City Mobility Plan 2030 as well as initiatives such as the Central Edinburgh Transformation Project, George Street proposals and the Meadows to George Street Cycleway project All signal a shift in emphasis and desire to move away from automotive strategies into more civic-based ones.  The Cockburn supports this approach in principle but will scrutinise the content of actual proposals.

Challenges and issues

The Spaces for People was a rapid rollout scheme that benefited from huge displacements of traditional road traffic due to the Stay at Home regulations of the Scottish Government.  As normal activity resumes over the coming weeks and months, competing pressures of road and civic space will result.  Any assumptions of success or impact will need to be reassessed, in some cases from first principles, before any temporary schemes can be deemed workable.

The increase in on-line retail was a trend that was simply accelerated by the lockdown.  The shift from People moving to the Shop to the Shop moving to the People will continue, meaning an increase in delivery traffic through the city.  A particular feature of this shift is the requirement for localised loading bays for delivery vehicles.  Any Street for People initiative must be able to accommodate this trend.

Design and Place Emphasis

The Cockburn argues that Spaces for People must prioritise making places for people.  Its focus should be place led, not transport led.   The introduction of safer cycling facilities is important but in many instances is a traffic management issue.

A wider, more inclusive urban design approach through a focused agenda of quality design inputs will yield more appropriate results in many places.  In this, we also emphasise the need to enhance the DESTINATION element of local centres in order to support local businesses post-Covid, noting the important role that they have played in supporting their neighbourhoods during and before the pandemic.

Narrative and Discussion

Spaces for People in Edinburgh was initiated to put in place several measures that specifically try to:

  • help parents/carers and children to physically distance near schools;
  • help people to physically distance while using high streets, some city centre streets, and while exercising; and
  • provide protected cycle lanes on main roads, so that people can consider cycling for trips that they might otherwise make by public transport

It is the Cockburn’s View that the Council has an opportunity, in terms of transport and travel, to make sure that residents and business owners can move about the city more safely and more efficiently, with a reduced impact on the local environment, than was the case before the pandemic.

However, any Spaces for People schemes that become permanent must:

  • be acceptable to residents and businesses;
  • improve the streetscape;
  • be safe for all users;
  • improve accessibility for all users;
  • be efficient;
  • be environmentally acceptable;
  • provide for walking, cycling and public transport consistent with the Transport Hierarchy.

The Spaces for People projects which have already been put in place or are in the process of being put in place, across the city may be fit for purpose and relevant to the needs of residents, businesses, and local communities. Restrictions on movement during the pandemic certainly present their challenges in forming a complete picture of these changes.  But what is certain is that all schemes which are to become permanent should only become so if they conform to the Transport Hierarchy. If they do not conform, they should not become permanent or should only do so after significant modification.

Emphasising the Transport Hierarchy

Scottish Government’s Sustainable Transport Order of Priority Diagram

The Scottish  Government’s Transport Hierarchy strategy places the needs and requirements of pedestrians at the top (including the access requirements of people with disabilities), followed by cyclists, then public transport, then shared transport with private ­car users last. The aim of the hierarchy is to ensure that the movement needs of the most vulnerable groups are fully considered in all new transport and mobility schemes. This does not necessarily give priority to pedestrians and cyclists in every location.  This will depend on local circumstances.

Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that the current Space for People projects have the potential to disproportionally adversely affect hard-to-reach or vulnerable groups, such as those with mobility issues.  Local businesses will also have their own unique concerns. The Council’s transport teams need to take the actions required to engage effectively with these groups beyond the passive and somewhat leading digital consultation portal. Information should be disseminated and presented locally in a way likely to be accessible and useful to the various local stakeholders with a substantial interest in the changes being put in place. And, of course, the views of residents and business may be quite different and may need bespoke consultation processes.

The Need for a Place Hierarchy

Missing from the Spaces for People initiative is an understanding of the needs of the particular place into which the interventions are being located.

Much of central Edinburgh is covered by Conservation Area designations, each of which has its own Conservation Area Character Appraisal that sets out those characteristics that need to be preserved or enhanced.   We acknowledge that traffic interventions are technically excluded from Conservation Area Management by Class 30 of the General Development Order (Work by the local authority) but we argue that there is a duty of care by all sections of the local authority to ensure the highest design standards in a Conservation Area.

Any interventions should reinforce the particular character and functions of that place. For example, if a street acts as a local neighbourhood centre (a parade of shops, pubs, cafes, etc), the first priority is to enhance the pedestrian environment with gathering spaces to support these places as local destinations.  It should be explicit that if in achieving this, the ability to insert a segregated cycleway is curtailed, that should be accepted.

Consultations and the Consultation process

A recent opinion piece in the Evening News declared that implementation is not consultation.  We agree with that sentiment.  At the height of the pandemic, normal consultation requirements were set aside for the necessary infrastructure to be put in place as quickly as possible whilst the pandemic was at its peak. This meant that some residents had controversially little, or no notification of planned Spaces for People changes and only found out when the implementation works started.

Now, the Council is considering whether to keep some Spaces for People measures in place, either on a trial basis or more permanently. Before deciding whether to go through the legal processes necessary to keep projects in place, the Council want to hear residents’ and businesses’ views.

The current process is an online consultation. It is not one based on the ground, in local communities, talking face-to-face with residents and local businesses. Whilst we appreciate that many schemes will be advanced under a temporary or experimental basis, it can be assumed that permanent retention is an objective.  As the pandemic restrictions ease, the Council should take the opportunity to expand and extend its consultation process to capture a full range of views from stakeholders affected by the Spaces for People projects. The Cockburn Association would certainly strongly encourage the Council to search out and take up all further consultation opportunities as they become possible.

It is also essential that the Council recognises that the views and lived experience of stakeholders may change as pandemic restrictions are eased and the city fills up again with traffic, visitors, and events. It is a sad reality that as commercial life returns to community ‘High Streets’ across the city, the local streetscape of shops and businesses, the way people shop, use services and meet friends and neighbours may have all have undergone significant change.  Locals may have discovered new ways of using their local streets and neighbourhoods and the Spaces for People initiative will need to support and facilitate local community vitality post pandemic and not hinder it.

The Council’s consultation processes will need to be agile enough to capture this changing reality. Indeed, as the city moves back to ‘normal’ life the results of the Council’s current consultation, given the unique circumstances under which it is being carried out, may come to be quite irrelevant to the reality of life in only a few months’ time.

Summary

We would encourage all local residents, businesses and stakeholders to participate in the Council’s current consultation.  But we believe that this should not be the end but rather the start of a more significant and locally engaging consultation exercise or series of consultations.