We closed our street for the first time to become a ‘play street’ on car-free day. Our street slopes steeply up from the South Circular up to Blythe Hill Fields in SE6. We’re a friendly community, linked by many close relationships, inter-dependencies and common culture. We’ve had Big Lunches and street parties, and we share babysitting, gardening tips, bulk food deliveries and the occasional bottle of wine. Not the whole street, however, is actually able to share a common culture, neither do we all know each other. The lower end of the street suffers from far worse air quality than those of us at the top do. I was loaned a Plumelab ‘flow’ air quality monitor a few years ago, and indeed, Blythe Hill Field’s air is as clean as an alpine pasture. Who’d have thought it? Strolling down the same street, however, you near the A205 and the air quality worsens to become the steaming, bumper-to-bumper lung-clogger we all know and…er..use. For car-free day I was adamant that we close the whole street, from car-fume-alley up to alpine pastures: it’s environmental justice in action. I held in my mind, also, the tragic story of Ella Kissi-Debrah, who died of asthma, very possibly caused by air pollution, not 1km away. She lived on the South Circular when she died and while the link between her death and local air quality hasn’t yet been proved, she is already ‘the face of air-pollution poison’. As a parent, this story makes me shudder with horror and vicarious pain.

A large amount of London’s air pollution is caused by cars, although some is caused by tiny particles blowing over in the wind from European industrial areas: something we can do nothing about. We complain, but ultimately we have excellent public transport in London, and Lewisham’s car ownership is the 13th lowest in London at just under 50%. However, a report by the ONS quoted recently that although car ownership is slowly going down, and cars are generally more fuel efficient, overall traffic volume and miles driven is still climbing. In 2018 drivers of all motor vehicles between them clocked up 328 billion miles on the road, up from 255 billion in 1990, that’s nearly a 30% increase over 30 years. Motor vehicles account for around a 5th of the UK’s total carbon emissions. So who’s doing the driving? And why is the air so filthy in some places and not others? Is this the new normal?

So, on our South London street, with carbon emissions, toxic air and a child dead of asthma in my mind I was quite motivated to take advantage of car-free day and council support to try and experiment with a ‘new-new normal’. I jumped through the hoops: I risk assessed; consulted with neighbours (all of them); made special arrangements for the mobility challenged; answered emails from anxious people; designed three different leaflets; printed 90 copies of two of them; arranged for their distribution; filled in an extensive council road-closure application form….car-free day had been months in onerous preparation. My thanks to my neighbours who collaborated, I did not do it alone.

As Sunday 22nd September dawned it also dawned on a whole lot of local people that we were actually going to close the street and give it over to our children. There was a mild air of panic and confusion: sudden changes-of-heart, collywobbles and fears for safety and some sheer disbelief. As adults, wearing hi-viz and slightly nervous, we felt like naughty kids overturning the authority of our parents. Some couldn’t believe the council had actually given permission… Some didn’t even dare come out at first.

But wow, was it worth it! We learned a lot that day. We learned how much our children absolutely loved it. A number of parents lost track of their children’s whereabouts and found that helicopter parenting wasn’t their preferred parenting style after all. Children went wild, but none of them actually breached boundaries of safety, respect for each other, and damage to property. We learned that nothing bad actually happens if you leave your front door ajar other than that neighbouring children come in to experiment with your lego. We learned, as one marshall said that ‘The Bigger The Car, The Bigger The Vexatious Person’ (only he used another more anatomical word). We learned a sad amount about people’s issues with cars, and lorries, about road safety fears and shaking furniture and noisy gear-changes and tyre-squeals that punch holes in a night’s sleep. Most people were worried but under informed about the invisible issue of air pollution.

The people who were most irate about being barred passage were not those who lived there, or who had mobility requirements or large loads, they were those who used our road as a cut-through to avoid congested parts of the South Circular. The sense of entitlement! At times it beggared belief. Many motorists rolled their eyes and went into reverse without a word, some scowled at us, a few used their middle fingers. We learned how being behind a wheel does make otherwise reasonable people prone to ‘road rage’. I had long noticed how the people most bothered by the traffic are usually driving a car in that traffic. They don’t seem to realise that they are the traffic. A person encased in a ton of tooled metal and complex electronics is a very different member of the species to the vulnerable flesh-and-blood human encased in only a turtle-neck and a hi-viz.

It rained on it, people abused us, we got bored on the barriers, and occasionally some kind person brought us cups of tea and cakes, memorably cakes. It was tough work, but when, the next day, several children in the street woke up and said ‘is it car-free day again, Mummy?’, it was so, so worth it.

Our cities are largely designed for the primacy of the private car and, although liberating for the 45% of car owners in Lewisham, they restrict the lives of the majority of car-free citizens, especially children.  By reclaiming our street for the common good, I felt for one day at least, we were reclaiming a bit of humanity. The best encouragement we can give our children is ‘imagine’. John Lennon said it first, and London’s car-free day was branded ‘re-imagine’. on Blythe Hill we imagined hard on car-free day, 22 September 2019.

Text by Zaria Greenhill / Photos by Libby Drew