Better places for everyone: why making streets people-friendly will boost our health

A people-friendly street in St Peter's ward

With mapping technology making it easier than ever to take short-cuts, 24.3 million more miles were driven through Islington in 2019 than 2013 –  an almost 10% increase. Perhaps even more alarmingly, traffic on London’s local streets has gone up by 72% in the past 12 years.

This may not be surprising to some but when it comes to our health, this is a serious problem. More traffic increases the risk of cancers and asthma linked to toxic fumes, too many people are killed or seriously injured on our roads while physical inactivity is contributing to the rise in obesity. These are just some of the reasons the council has introduced people-friendly streets and school streets. We can all benefit from cleaner, healthier and safer streets, no matter what our individual circumstances or daily routines look like.

We spoke to Cllr Rowena Champion, Islington’s Executive Member for Environment and Transport, and Cllr Nurullah Turan, Executive Member for Health and Social Care, about why making changes to the way we use our streets and the ways we choose to travel will bring health benefits for all.

More reasons to walk

Walking is one of the easiest ways to get more active and improve your physical and mental health. Plus, it’s free! You don’t have to walk for hours on end – even a brisk 10-minute walk each day has many health benefits and counts towards your recommended 150 minutes of weekly exercise.

Introducing low traffic neighbourhoods and school streets makes it easier and safer to walk across the borough and to school, encouraging everyone to enjoy more frequent walking.

Cllr Nurullah Turan says: “Over one third (35%) of car journeys in London are under 2km, a journey that could be walked by many. Are you using the car for short journeys at the moment? Is walking an option? Why not try it and see if you feel the difference.”

Cllr Rowena Champion adds: “Studies show that walking to school can help children concentrate in the classroom and a walk home gives them a chance to let off steam after a day of sitting down, yet 25% of London’s peak morning traffic is attributed to the school run. Let’s get walking if we can, making the most of Islington’s existing school streets and the additional six we’re due to launch before the end of the year. This may also help to fight obesity, which is at a concerning rate in the UK with 38% of children in year six being overweight or obese.”

To find out more about walking in Islington and for some suggested walking routes, visit this page.

Healthy minds

Our local environment can make a real difference to our mental wellbeing, and this includes the way we use our streets.

Walking and physical activity can improve self-esteem, mood and sleep quality, and numerous studies have shown that it reduces stress, anxiety and fatigue. According to Walking for Health, physically active people have up to a 30% reduced risk of becoming depressed and staying active helps those who are depressed recover.

Social interaction is also a key ingredient for our mental wellbeing, and unfortunately constant through-traffic and noise pollution is an unhelpful barrier to social connections in neighbourhoods. American professor Donald Appleyard carried out some fascinating research into this, looking at how streets with high traffic volumes have a far lower rate of social interaction when compared to those without constant through-traffic.  The residents in low traffic areas felt much more at home and a stronger sense of community than those in streets with higher traffic volumes.

“By making it harder for through-traffic to cut through Islington’s residential areas, we can bring a sense of community back to our streets whilst improving our mental wellbeing and maybe even reducing loneliness for some of our residents,” says Cllr Nurullah Turan. “Social interaction is important for our mental health and given what we’ve experienced in 2020 with the health emergency, there has never been a more important time for community spirit.”

Cleaning our air

Pollution is a serious public health issue, and it’s estimated that the equivalent of 40,000 lives are lost each year in the UK because of the polluted air we breathe. Pollution has been linked to lung cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and asthma. Research also suggests that traffic pollution could be one of the most toxic substances for our skin, contributing to premature skin aging, irritation and breakouts.

Cllr Rowena Champion says: “Although air quality has steadily improved in Islington over the last decade, it remains a serious public health issue and the council is working extremely hard to address it. Introducing low traffic neighbourhoods and school streets will make it easier for people to walk and cycle around. By reducing the number of unnecessary car journeys we can make the borough healthier, cleaner and safer. The good news is we have already seen some improvement in the air quality outside Islington’s schools, as seen in our 2019 Air Quality Report.”

Cllr Nurullah Turan adds: “It’s crucial that we take measures to improve the quality of the air we breathe so we can protect ourselves and our communities. Doubling levels of walking and cycling in the UK would prevent 8,300 premature deaths each year through improved air quality.”

Reducing road danger

When we leave our homes we should feel safe and confident about the journey ahead, but frequent through-traffic makes it more dangerous to walk, cycle and play in Islington’s streets.

The safety impacts on children are particularly worrying. Sadly, the most common cause of death amongst children aged 5 – 14 in the UK is being hit by a vehicle, and a mile driven on a minor road compared to a mile on a main road is twice as likely to kill or seriously injure a child and three times more likely if it’s a child on a bicycle.

Cllr Rowena Champion says: “With this in mind, it’s not surprising that families are less likely to allow their children to play outside their homes than they used to be, but this is not how Islington has to be. If we can reduce the overall number of car journeys in the borough and make our residential streets quieter and safer, we can make our streets better for living, and that’s for everyone including people walking, wheeling and cycling, people who are more vulnerable and children who want to play.”

For more information about the people-friendly streets programme and school streets, visit the people-friendly streets page on the council website.



Latest Discover Islington blog

Back to Discover Islington blog