Public spaces affect health. The design of a street influences whether we can enjoy a walk to get fresh air, how safe we are from potential accidents, and how much toxic air we’re exposed to.
Impact on Urban Health, Guy’s & St Thomas’ Foundation, recently spoke to to Rezina Chowdhury, a Councillor of the Streatham Hill East Ward in Lambeth and a Cabinet Member for Sustainable Lambeth and Clean Air; and David Wilson, Climate Response Strategy Manager for Transport and Public Realm at Lambeth Council, about how and why councils can reclaim the kerbside to improve people’s health.
The ‘kerbside’ – or the space where most people park their cars – represents one of the largest public assets councils have control over. Today, 94% of the kerbside in Lambeth is used to manage where cars can and cannot park.
In January, Lambeth Council launched an ambitious new kerbside strategy to reclaim some of that space to reduce air pollution and improve people’s health.
The strategy reimagines the kerbside to enable accessible and active travel, improve air quality, create social spaces, and reduce carbon emissions.
But how did Lambeth Council create the strategy, how do they plan to implement it, and what advice would they give to other councils around the country?
What is the kerbside strategy and why was it needed?
Rezina: We’ve been hearing loud and clear from residents in Lambeth that how we use our public spaces needs to change to make people’s lives better and to address the climate crisis.
In 2021 we held a Citizen’s Assembly where people told us they wanted it to be easier to walk, cycle, and wheel around Lambeth. People said they wanted more space for socialising, including safe space for children to run and play, and more greenery on the streets.
This all helped to inform our Climate Action Plan. We started to think about how we could reimagine the kerbside in Lambeth to put people first, rather than cars. People want safety for their children and public space should prioritise that.
David: 60% of households in Lambeth don’t have access to car, but 94% of our kerbside is currently used to manage where cars can park. That is striking disparity, and it seemed obvious to us that we needed to address that imbalance. We think the kerbside can and should be used for much more than parking.
Rezina: Issues like climate change and air pollution don’t affect people equally. People from low-income backgrounds, older people, and people with longstanding health conditions are going to feel the effects much more. It’s fundamentally unfair that people who are less likely to own a car are more likely to be subject to the harmful effects of traffic and pollution.
What were the biggest challenges putting the strategy together?
David: Just defining the ‘kerbside’ as a space was a challenge.
While there are some councils that have thought about the kerbside, it’s been done mostly in the context of car parking strategies. But there’s a lot more to the kerbside than parking. It’s also a space for trees, places to sit and rest, cycle parking, electric vehicle charging, and parklets and a long list of other uses.
Once you’ve defined ‘the kerbside space’ you need to think about what you’re trying to achieve in and think about how your streets could support you along the way.
Making a bold commitment to repurpose the space is helpful. Lambeth’s Climate Action Plan does exactly that and helped set the scale of ambition. It feels radical at first, but once we started to tally it up, we realised that we are so far from having a proportionate use of this space, that 25% of the kerbside being sustainable is actually quite reasonable.
Do you have any advice for other councils that are thinking of doing something similar?
Rezina: I think it’s important for councils to pilot new kerbside policies before making any major changes.
Before we launched the kerbside strategy in Lambeth, we trialled some interventions we thought could work on The Cut, which is near Waterloo station. We converted car-parking into space for scooter hire and new seating areas for restaurants. These spaces mean people can see that re-purposing space to prioritise health, wellbeing is effective and works for businesses too.
Can you explain why it’s important for other local authorities in the UK to have similar strategies?
Rezina: When people walk or cycle a two-mile journey instead of driving, it’s better for their heart and blood pressure, and that means it’s good for the NHS. And it’s great for the local economy because people spend more time in and around their neighbourhoods.
Some people might be upset about having to pay extra for their car. But those people have the privilege of having that choice; something lots of people don’t have. I see this through a lens of social justice. It’s unfair that streets are designed for cars, so we see this as a way of embedding some equality in our communities.
David: 75% of councils have declared a climate emergency. That means they’ll be asking questions about how we’re we going to cope with extremely hot summers and the risk of flooding overwhelming streets.
That’s something that struck me: Just how much physical space our Flood Risk Officers and Street Trees Teams were saying we need to re-purpose to meet these challenges, and that will be the case across the country. In that context it’s key to start thinking about how to re-purpose public spaces like the kerbside.
It’s not just about building infrastructure and resilience. The bonus is you get nice things in return! Greener streets, more trees, more open space, clean air that doesn’t cause terrible illnesses: These are things that that improve people’s lives. More outdoor space, as we saw during the pandemic, also proved to be a real advantage for local businesses as well.
What role do other organisations have in helping councils put strategies in place like this?
Rezina: I’ve been a councillor for eight years and residents have always spoken to me about re-imagining streets.
When low traffic neighbourhoods were introduced in 2020, it demonstrated that reclaiming space is possible and effective. More people began to see the benefits of clean air, active travel, and safer streets.
That’s when I got to know organisations like Mums for Lungs and Clean Cities Campaign, among others. These groups are key. From a political perspective, they help councillors realise there’s a significant voice out there who want to be heard and want to help.
David: It was fundamental to draw on the expertise of local people and that should be clear in the strategy. For example, people with mobility impairments, or who are neurodiverse, have been asking for improvements to public spaces for decades.
There are organisations like Mums for Lungs, Trees for Cities, and Transport for All that have done extensive research, and our job at the Council was to make sure all of that is embedded into our kerbside strategy. Councils aren’t experts on everything, they need to draw on local expertise and lived experience.
When writing this strategy, in what ways did you consider equity and fairness? And how did you make sure communities consulted when developing the strategy?
David: We saw the kerbside as a way of implementing other strategies which we had consulted on extensively. There are lots of examples: Our Transport Strategy, Air Quality Action Plan, Health and Wellbeing strategy, our work with the Citizens Assembly on Climate Change – all of these are embedded into the work we’ll now do on the kerbside, and they’re the result of extensive consultations with residents, community organisations, and businesses. We see the kerbside strategy as providing the space on our streets to help make these happen more quickly.
There’s even a role in engaging with our own teams internally! That’s a challenge for councils. Like many organisations, council teams can sometimes work in siloes. This strategy isn’t just about transport. It was put together by teams across the Council and we think that comes across in the final strategy.
The kerbside is an abstract concept for most people. We had to find a way of making it meaningful and exciting not just for the public but for our own teams internally. We asked social workers, planning officers, school teams and many others about how they could use the kerbside to help their team, and the communities they serve. Every team had surprising and creative ideas which helped bring the strategy to life.
Rezina: David and his team also did sessions for ward councillors, who need to be on board for change to happen. Those sessions helped councillors to re-imagine what their wards might look like and, ultimately, we became ambassadors for change. I think it was a good move to get ward councillors engaged early on.
David: Another important point is that, whereas we now have the vision articulated in a strategy, the implementation will take place incrementally over the next seven years, as part of the Councils’ commitment to be net zero by 2030. That means the conversations with residents aren’t over. It’s crucial that we speak to people about their streets, so the conversation is just starting. Good engagement doesn’t end when a strategy is published – it’s ongoing.
In what way can businesses contribute to this kerbside strategy? What responsibility do businesses have?
David: Based on our research we expect that businesses will benefit from people having better access to the kerbside. The need to revitalise high streets has never been greater so it’s great to use this public space and we saw glimpses of how businesses can use streets during the pandemic. The strategy aims to build on that energy.
There’s an opportunity for public-private partnerships here too. Councils can and should collaborate with electric vehicle charge point providers or with car sharing companies. Another good example is for councils to work with businesses that provide secure bike hangers.
Rezina: It’s up to councillors like me to help sell this vision to businesses, especially ones that might be sceptical. We’re saying to these businesses that they have more space, they’re more likely to have customers, and the areas they’re based in will be more welcoming for people.