Free of traffic and full of life
Home zones are places that put people first - and they prosper, writes Graham Norwood
Sunday March 10, 2002
Ask any estate agents what residents look for in a new house and location will be important. A detached house is preferable to a semi; a garden is a draw. But most important of all is parking and, ideally, access to a commuter route.
So in an age when property analysts DTZ Residential can confidently assert that parking spaces can add 5 per cent to a property value, it is surprising that some homeowners volunteer to make life more difficult for car owners by turning local streets into home zones.
A home zone is a set of roads designed primarily for pedestrians and cyclists instead of motorists. Details vary from place to place but the concept involves abolishing 'roadways' and 'pavements' and replacing them with a level surface shared by all users. Cars are restricted to 10 mph and parking is severely limited. You are as likely to find benches, flower tubs and children's play equipment on the streets as road signs.
Over the past three years the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has chosen 13 pilot projects, and is sufficiently encouraged to identify a further 61 to receive a total of £30 million for environmental improvements. Junior environment Minister Sally Keeble says the initiative may be revolutionary now, but 'these ideas will become a routine part of urban design, so that streets become public spaces of value to people'.
When the idea works, it generates community activity, which benefits everyone. For example, a home zone is nearing completion in the deprived Morice Town area of Plymouth, an area of mixed council, housing association and private homes close to Devonport Dockyard. Three large community meetings were held, plus door-to-door surveys and 'community design workshops'. Local primary school children recorded vehicle speeds in the area with the help of the police.
'The community has done great things. Many of them took further education to give them skills to do things, like making bids for funding,' says Adrian Trim, who leads Plymouth city council's home zone team. 'They also lobbied the council to paint flats in the area, saying it wasn't much use creating a home zone without improving the rest of the environment. It worked and the flats have been painted.'
Contractors start work on the zone at the end of March, and it will be completed in time for a national conference on the initiatives, to be held in the city in late June.
But sometimes public consultation and decisive action conflict. One of the first groups to be awarded home zone pilot status was Holmewood Neighbourhood Association (HNA) in Streatham, south London. This cluster of streets of large Victorian houses has four primary schools nearby and is a warren of rat-runs for commuters.
'As with any group of London middle classes, there was a clash,' admits HNA chairperson Duncan Law. 'Some residents had a primal desire to park outside their front door and to drive everywhere. Others, like the old and the children who stay in the area all day, would really benefit from the scheme.' Consensus around any one scheme has been almost impossible to achieve, he says.
Law says it took from July 1999 to March 2000 for Lambeth Council to set up a working group, with public consultation not taking place until winter 2000.
In May 2001 there was a public exhibition of proposals, but some months later the ambulance service objected to road closures that would slow its response times. The council now wants to shorten the consultation process on alternative ideas and start work in the near future.
'After two-and-a-half years we're almost back to square one,' says Law.
But Streatham's residents can draw solace from the effect a home zone will have on their house prices. Estate agents welcome the prospect - at least if householders have a guaranteed parking place nearby.
'The houses in Holmewood Gardens would definitely have value added by this plan,' says a spokeswoman for local estate agent Townends. 'It would be like a private square in this part of London and give the area an exclusive, more upmarket feel. So long as residents have car parking, it would push up prices quite a lot,' she claims.
The DTLR says that home zones have worked better in areas of mixed housing than in wholly private areas, and that boosting the price of houses is not the object of the exercise. But it accepts price rises may be inevitable if a cluster of streets becomes more desirable - and if the residents can agree what needs to be done.
Home zones across the world
Netherlands: 6,500 projects created since 1968, with 30kmph (about 18mph) speed limits.
Germany: Around 150 home zones created since early Eighties.
Austria: 200 zones created over 19 years.
Denmark: 450 streets with pedestrian priority and 15kmph (9mph) speed limits.
US: 'Smart growth' mixed-use streets in some cities, with 20mph limits.
· For more information look at www.homezonenews.org.uk on the internet.