Matt White: Norfolk Car-Free Day 2020
2019 saw the inaugural Norwich Car-Free Day. Our plan to expand and grow seemed so simple back then, but - of course - COVID has thrown some gigantic spanners in all the works.
COVID cast a shadow of doubt over Car-Free Day ever since it reared its obstinate head. It ruled out the chance of any of the planned official road closures that 2020 promised - mainly because our local authorities were too stretched to even consider this course of action. However after a few hopeful emails, our transport authority, Norfolk County Council (NCC), pledged to support the initiative and to push it county-wide, and Norfolk Car-Free Day was born. Our campaign was key in establishing last year’s Norwich Car-Free Day, and has now helped the initiative go county-wide in just a year: far exceeding our own expectations.
One of the main features of 2019’s event was that the usual fee to close residential streets for the day was waived. We were keen for this to be replicated again this year - and, thankfully, NCC agreed. They even went one better, and also agreed to our request to scrap these fees entirely: as activators for the brilliant Playing Out CIC, this is something that we have been demanding for some time. For this year’s event, more than twice the number of residential streets had applied to close than in 2019: promising growth, especially considering that many more were likely discouraged by the pandemic. The dream was that Norfolk Car-Free Day would really kick-start the play street movement in our area: a day of play, and socially-distanced community connection, that would hopefully inspire residents to hold regular play sessions on their roads throughout the year.
But then everything changed. The government’s new ‘rule of 6’ plunged these closures into doubt, as council officers grappled with the feasibility of the event under the new guidance. When we received the good news that they will in fact be approved, it was less than a week before the big day. Under the new rules, these street closures will be very different affairs: strictly about creating extra space for children to play in, with zero emphasis on community gathering - and a distinct lack of shared cake! But even in this reduced capacity, they will be a huge boon for the physical and mental health of our children, which has suffered so much in recent months. The late notice of the approval means that some streets have made other plans, or have been spooked by the new rule, but no matter what happens on the actual day, we have made tremendous progress.
In planning Norfolk Car-Free Day we have engaged with hundreds of citizens across tens of roads. It is obvious - partly, perhaps, due to the community connections forged during lockdown - that there is a huge hunger for these events in the shared space of the street. This, combined with a much improved policy from our local authority means that we’re optimistic that car-free days and play streets will form an increasingly important part of the civic life of Norfolk; helping to change the psychology of the street (less ‘car space’, more ‘our space’), lowering CO2 emissions, and reducing exposure to air pollution.
There’s certainly some irony in spending great effort trying to lower car use on one day, when for weeks during lockdown there was virtually no traffic at all: but we need the benefits of car-free streets without the anxiety and horror of a global pandemic. Looking ahead to 2021’s event - with a longer run-in, and more coherent planning (and, ideally, less threat from COVID), it's possible that a whole network of streets will close to traffic in Norwich and the towns of Norfolk, giving many more people a real taste of a safer, low pollution world.
Matt White is the Founder of Car-Free Norwich. He has over 10 years experience in community campaigning and project management, focusing on local solutions to climate change and air pollution. His personal experience of living with a severe lung disease drives his fight for clean air, and an equitable transport system.