Something is not quite right when you’re on holiday and you find pavements more interesting than the scenery. Staying at my parents’ seaside cottage in the lovely town of Newcastle, Northern Ireland, what struck me most this year was not the stunning sea views or the sweeping mountains of Mourne – but the poor quality of provision for pedestrians. (I’m clearly spending too much time with playing out activists and town planners.) Despite spending millions on an award-winning promenade on the sea front in the centre of town about a decade ago, at our end of town the council haven’t even bothered putting in a pavement.
Our cottage comes with some fascinating neighbours.* Next door houses four generations of women: a grandmother, her disabled daughter, her 9-year-old granddaughter and her 91 year old mother. The grandmother also cares for 5 chickens, 3 dogs and 3 cats (of the original 12. She no longer keeps rabbits or goats for some reason). I saw her one morning struggling back from the local shop (called the ‘Nearbuy’, which I think is brilliant wordplay and never fail to find funny) through the six-inch gap between the parked cars’ wing mirrors and the front gardens’ stone walls. There’s a generous pavement on the other side – the sea front – but nothing on the side where people’s homes are. Just as well our neighbour has access to a side road, or I’ve no idea how she would get her daughter’s wheelchair to the car.
The council came and measured up for a pavement eight years ago, she told me, but nothing came of it. The then owner of the Nearbuy objected on the grounds that it would affect his business. Why? Well, cars wouldn’t be able to pull right up to the shop’s front door any more. Hmm… That argument sounds familiar. So to pop out for a paper or a pint of milk, residents have to run the gauntlet of the main thoroughfare between Kilkeel and Belfast without the refuge of a pavement or even a pedestrian crossing. My neighbour tells me that the short walk to school, in rush hour, is not the pleasant experience you’d expect in a pretty seaside town.
This might sound like a trivial whinge but I don’t think it is. Last week we drove to Killard Point at the mouth of Strangford Lough, where the beaches are starkly wild and beautiful. But what I noticed about the villages we drove through was the road we were on, slicing through the middle: nowhere for people to walk, no traffic-free public space for people to be sociable, or anywhere safe for children to play. (Have I just described every British rural community, or is it only Strangford Lough?) I saw a slide and swing in one front garden and it looked very isolated and fenced in, which I guess it had to be, to keep children and pets off the road. I was standing on the grass verge musing on this (as cars hurtled by, perfectly legally, at 60mph) when Mr Suburbanite told me what he’d just heard from a local. An elderly man was visiting his son’s farm – which we could see from where we were standing – and was killed instantly by a passing car as he stepped out of the farmyard.
It’s not trivial. There is something intrinsically wrong with road design when it kills community – or given the chance, just kills.
*Correction. All houses come with fascinating neighbours, if next door is occupied. You just don’t always get to find out how fascinating they are.