It was some time in my second year of architecture school that I realised that while I loved architecture, my real passion lay in people and how they use buildings and the spaces around them. The streets, roads, passageways, nooks, squares, alleys, pavements, road crossings – the list goes on. My real love is the city.
I often see people nodding their heads when I talk about my passion for pavements, as if they are genuinely interested, when I know full well that they are much more interested in what I have to say about kitchen design. Over the course of this pandemic, my passion for pavements has really come into its own. I noticed that, as well as people focusing on improving their homes, there was a new-found appreciation for their streets. When there was nowhere really to go, and we were advised to stay at home, suddenly the streets around us, and our local spaces became even more important. People started community activities like rainbow trails and sunflower competitions - giving people something to look for when they were out on their daily walk. This appreciation of our local spaces started to expand into how we can make the streets themselves more engaging.
Traffic calming measures have been introduced to make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists and this has made our local town centre in Peckham feel more vibrant and community-oriented. Parklets have also started to appear on our streets (something we are exploring in a very exciting new project) and they provide mini sanctuaries from the hustle and bustle. Overall, people have started to wonder how much nicer our streets could be.
My family and I are lucky enough to live on a street that has transformed itself into a community throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. A year ago I could tell you the names of a handful of our immediate neighbours but now I know a lot more people who live near us. Throughout the pandemic we have come together; whether that’s for Clap For Carers, a weekly food bank run, or a sunflower competition – we have built a community on our street.
Now, with the holidays looking a little less festive this year, our community has decided to brighten things up for people. Over 30 houses along our street have come together to create an incredible display of festive lights. On the 5th of December, we switched them on as a community and enjoyed a socially distanced walk and some mulled wine. Our fairly ordinary looking suburban street has been transformed into something far more sparkly. It was a real treat to wander along and see the effort that so many people had put in. Each home has their own creative take – some wild and bright (there is even an illuminated smoke machine), while others small and tasteful. But as a whole, our street looks pretty special.
Light has an amazing ability to bring joy and animation – with small interventions having a big impact. With relatively little effort or cost a significant change can come about. Despite festive lights being in the remit of our own homes, they can have a huge impact on the wider community and they can change the way people engage with the local environment.
Having agency over your environment in this way has a significant impact on public space and mental wellbeing. Dr Juliet Wakefield, a senior lecturer in psychology at Nottingham Trent University, was quoted by the BBC to this effect, "Christmas lights can be a way to telegraph a shared solidarity and identity...There's a lot of evidence that shows having this group belonging enhances our mental health."
This visual signal of community and solidarity benefits the wider neighbourhood as well as visitors, extending far beyond those participating in the illuminations themselves. Knowing you are in a space that is cared for has a real impact on a person’s sense of belonging. The lights literally send out a positive and welcoming beacon – they don’t just enhance the visual experience, they make spaces feel exciting and inviting. Lights can also help us feel safer. They add visibility making illegal activity more difficult, and increase a sense of security for those using the space. Furthermore, a sense that a space is communally cared for is also a clear deterrent to crime.
Our street is planning to make the festive lights an annual event and my hope is that the desire to improve the streetscape will extend beyond lights. I’m looking forward to seeing communities make the most out of their streets and seeing their community spirit sparkle.