People sitting at tables drinking in a street in Soho.
Part of the problem not the solution. Letting pubs, bars and restaurants privatise the space that was once used for motor vehicle storage denies us the opportunity to reclaim the streets for active transport, public space and greening. Photo: Westminster City Council.

I hope the removal of parked cars from our streets is permanent, but I hope the “streateries” proposed by Westminster Council and no doubt soon to be followed by Camden Council are only temporary.

The pandemic has given us the opportunity to think about how we use the streets in our densely packed city. But Camden and Westminster councils are all too easily swayed by commercial demands when instead they should be focusing on tackling climate change, increasing biodiversity, improving public space, and enabling active transport.

Central London’s streets are clogged up with thousands of spaces for parking cars. We’ve allowed this to happen without ever being consulted about whether our streets should have been privatised in this way.

Parked cars stop us from moving safely through our neighbourhoods on foot, wheelchair, or pedal cycle. And they take up vital space that should be used for planting street trees to reflect sunlight, absorb carbon dioxide, and space for sustainable urban drainage to prevent heavy rains pushing sewerage into our rivers.

Yet the dominant response from Councils (and sadly some active travel advocates) is to let pubs, bars and restaurants take over the space that was once used for motor vehicle storage — denying the public the opportunity to reclaim the streets for public use, green our neighbourhoods, and tackle the twin environmental crises of our time.

Some of those in the food and beverage sector — and The Fitzrovia Partnership Business improvement District — want to expand its estate into the streets, permanently. It is in the nature of business to do this — and it is in its nature to dress it up as a green alternative, when it is nothing of the sort.

Streateries are not the answer to the twin crises of our time, nor are they the answer to healthy living and improving safe movement through our city.

London’s streets will likely become stiflingly hot during the summer months, affecting people’s health; and businesses, too, will suffer as our city ceases to function properly. We cannot have outdoor air conditioning in the summer as well as outdoor heating in the winter for outside eating and drinking. It all adds to the problem at hand.

Our streets are only partially tree-lined but they could quite easily be long, green corridors. Planting many more trees and allowing them to grow to develop a large canopy is difficult to achieve because they have until now been planted on narrow footways and therefore close to buildings. Squeezed in where there’s space.

In conservation areas the planting of trees is often shunned in an effort to preserve the character of the street. Regent Street is an extreme example of this where there is not a single street tree along its entire length. But this could be changing as the climate crisis now looms large.

It is often a struggle to find the space to plant trees. But find it we must.

Planting trees in the carriageway and into the subsoil — rather than into ugly planters — would not take space away from pedestrians and it would allow trees to mature and develop a large canopy without having to be cut back due to their proximity to buildings. Their beauty would enhance our conservation areas not detract from them.

With extensive planting on the edge of the carriageway our summer streets could become cooling tree tunnels, maximising the amount of carbon storage, and heat-reflecting canopy.

Field maple (Acer campestre) trees planted a decade ago are now flourishing because we created space for them.

When the carriageway on the eastern end of Goodge Street was narrowed some years ago, field maple trees (Acer campestre) were planted on the extended pavements and these have flourished because they are away from the facades of buildings. This planting could be extended west and along Mortimer Street if space is taken from cars and given over to trees in the same way.

Central London has less than 15 percent tree cover canopy: in Bloomsbury ward it is 14 percent, and in West End it is is only 5 percent. There should be a canopy cover of at least 40 percent if we are going to achieve any meaningful reduction in summer heat, according to a research paper published in 2019. There is also too much impermeable surface area such as tarmac that traps heat overnight (part of the the heat island) and this should be converted to accommodate low level greenery.

It is important that we don’t allow The Fitzrovia Partnership to install lights in the trees (they really want to commercialise everything) as apart from being ugly this has a negative impact on the insects that inhabit the greenery and support the wider ecosystem.

With a broad selection of street trees and a mix of native and non-native species we would increase the wildlife habitat and the biodiversity of our green avenues by providing a long season of insect feeding pollen — reversing ecological loss and creating natural beauty.

Carriageway space was given over to a rain garden and sustainable urban drainage system (SUDs) in Marylebone High Street.

And if we set aside a water permeable rain garden with wildflowers at the foot of each tree we allow more rainwater to be taken into the subsoil and not into the drains, supporting the trees and protecting our rivers. This has been done successfully by Westminster Council — albeit on a small scale — at Marylebone High Street.

But greening is not just about trees and other plants. It is about how we move through the city.

With parked cars — or streateries — in the way, the narrow streets of central London prevent safe space for walking and cycling and stop useful contraflows in one-way streets.

At the moment we need some space for some car parking and deliveries to be made; but in the long term our streets need to be for pedestrians and wheelchair users to move and relax, to allow people to cycle without road danger, to store cycles, and create new space for the variety of larger utility, cargo, and electric-assist cycles that are now available.

Pedestrianisation is not the answer because it more often than not just displaces motor traffic from one street to another. Creating low traffic neighbourhoods and enabling safe active transport is part of the solution.

We need to claim back our streets to move freely, safely, and sustainably; rip up tarmac to let rainwater drain, and plant continuous avenues of deciduous trees to shade ourselves and protect our future.

Trees and greening: Scale-dependent interactions between tree canopy cover and impervious surfaces reduce daytime urban heat during summer. Carly D. Ziter, Eric J. Pedersen, Christopher J. Kucharik, Monica G. Turner. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Apr 2019, 116 (15) 7575-7580; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1817561116; Camden Council: About Camden’s Trees ; Mayor of London announces thousands of new street trees across London; Valuing London’s Urban Forest; GB ward canopy cover web map.

Linus Rees is co-editor of Fitzrovia News.