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What are our streets for?

“Our only interaction with our street is the trip from front door to car door. If you are fortunate enough to have a drive, then you don’t even set foot on the pavement.”

Daren Callow, Bricycles member and father of 2, takes a satirical look at the question of what our streets are for. Here he is enjoying his street from a homemade go-kart.

So, here’s a question I’ve been thinking about: what are our streets for?  Perhaps I should start by defining what I mean by a street. It’s one of the oldest concepts that’s still kicking around with its original meaning. The word itself comes from the Latin word strata, meaning a paved or constructed road. As opposed to I assume, some dirt track made by the unwashed natives staggering home after a drunken ritual.

Yes, I know folk created roads before the Romans but the Romans turned it into a “project”. They built them in straight lines all over the empire, all leading to Rome naturally. The purpose at the time of construction was mostly to march a bunch of hobnail-booted squaddies up and down their assumed territory to batter the heathens into submission. To be fair they were pretty successful at it, until they weren’t. Alongside this the only other “traffic” you’d see would be of the hooved variety. After the Romans toddled off, the roads fell somewhat into disrepair.  Boy, the complaints old Alfred must have gotten about ye olde potholes! 

Anyway, enough of the pseudo history lesson. What do I mean by a street I hear you shout?  Well to me it’s the place where you live. So by that definition I’m not talking about motorways or major A-roads but any road with dwellings alongside and I’m talking about the whole street. Pavements, kerbs, drains, carriageway, and everything else in-between. From trees and disused telegraph poles to lampposts and street signs. Whether we realise it or not, streets define our lives. I’m sure you can recall the names of every street you’ve lived in. Perhaps even where major life events took place or friends and relatives lived. They probably evoke childhood memories of meeting friends at junctions, telephone boxes or by bus stops.

Nowadays you could be excused for thinking streets are just for storing personal property, so long as that property is a motor vehicle or accessory thereof. And for moving said personal motor-powered transportation systems around, usually from one parking spot to another.  But of course, this is very much a modern phenomenon. Factory produced motor cars only appeared in the 1900s by which time nearly all of Brighton and Hove’s roads were laid out and really haven’t changed much since. General car ownership only really became a thing after WWII, when mass production made them affordable to the hoi-polloi. But despite appearances not everyone owns a car. In some parts of town car ownership is very much the minority.

But this isn’t really about that, so here’s another question: how well do you know your neighbours? How many do you know by name? How many of them could you go to if you needed to borrow a lawnmower or a Bavarian cheese slicer, or something else equally dangerous? It’s been shown that changing habits have led to many of us being more isolated from our neighbours and not knowing as many of them as we did in the past. Once upon a time we all knew the business of everyone in our road. We knew every new arrival and departure, every time Doris from number 23 had another fancy man over, the time the Bryce’s got new curtains or Harold at number 4 had that incident in the shed! Kids were often the first to make friends. I always managed to round up a posse of local urchins to launch into a homemade go-kart race, build a spaceship-themed den, or recreate WWII in miniature through local front gardens.  

But times have changed haven’t they? One of the reasons we tend to know fewer of our fellow street dwellers is because our only interaction with our street is the trip from front door to car door. If you are fortunate enough to have a drive, then you don’t even set foot on the pavement. Want to walk the dog? Stick it in the car and drive to a park. Shops? Off we go to Tesco’s car park. Don’t forget the bags! Bike ride? Yeah, OK stop hassling me, I’ll put the bike rack on. School run, work commute, visiting relatives. Man, my limbs feel stiff. Better join a gym. To the batmobile!

There has to be a better way right? So I’ll ask you again. What are our streets for? Well, here’s what I think. Our streets are for everyone. For babies to be rolled to sleep over the uneven paving slabs in their prams. For kids and their geopolitical/space opera inspired games. For little Jenny to take that first wobbly bike ride. For little Johnny to get to school. For teenagers to meet their one and only first true love on the corner by Budgens. For the newly adulted to stagger home from the pub. For those who can’t or won’t drive to get to the bus stop or the station or the shops or to pop in and see Doris at number 23. For safe passage of every form of transport the community has to offer, from Shank’s pony (look it up) through scooters, mobility aids of all kinds, cargo bikes and trikes. For street parties, meeting neighbours, talking, wandering. For taking the scenic route home. And yes, even for driving along.  

What are our streets for? They are for us. Use them wisely. Use them often. Stop yourself the next time you are heading from front door to car door and ask, could I do this another way? Could I walk to where I’m going? Could I cycle? Could I go a different route? What are our streets for? That’s up to us.

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