Wandering Free?

London walking tours

To wander through London pausing occasionally to notice, listen, reflect, discuss – these are the freedoms our walks depend on.

Things were different in the past. In Mediaeval London, it was forbidden to walk through the City after the dusk curfew bell. In the nineteenth century, whilst nocturnal roaming was allowed, large areas of the metropolis were off-limits to the public day and night. The docks, for example, were surrounded by high walls built to keep the warehouses secure. And some of London’s prettiest neighbourhoods were run by private landowners for the exclusive enjoyment of their well-to-do residents. So, the fine Georgian squares within the Bedford Estate – Bloomsbury Square, Bedford Square, Russel Square etc – were once guarded by gates and sentry boxes and patrolled by private security forces. Those London streets benefitting from a public right of way were often so caked in horse manure as to be un-crossable on foot. Thick smogs from smoke mingling with fog added hazard, mystery and wheezing to the whole walking experience.

Our ability to roam London today is the result of so many reforms and hard-fought battles (the adoption of private roads by public authorities, the closure of the docks and other industries in the capital, the Clean Air Act, motor cars replacing horses, modern policing…). There are more fights ahead to make London a truly roamable place. But there’s also a lot to celebrate. Here are ten reasons to cheer and to rage in 2018.

Reasons to be angry

  1. London’s air is dangerous. These days it’s not smoke that’s the problem, but rather invisible pollutants from traffic emissions. Illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide and polluting particles are causing up to 9,000 extra deaths in the capital each year. These are not wholesome conditions for walkers.
  2. Little street space is dedicated to walking. Take the City of London, where pavements take up only 25% of the streets, but half the journeys people make are on foot.
  3. CCTV cameras are everywhere. There are some 400,000 of them now in Greater London. Whatever the crime prevention and detection benefits (a debate for another day…), how free can you really feel as a walker when you are being filmed most of the time?
  4. Many new ‘public’ spaces are privately owned, patrolled by security guards and subject to secretive restrictions. A survey by the Guardian, identified some fifty such ‘pseudo-public spaces’ including Bankside, Canary Wharf, Paternoster Square and Pancras Square. These can be pleasant places to hang out. The problem is the lack of transparency about what we’re free to do there, and what’s restricted under bylaws.
  5. Open spaces are too often hired out for commercial events, like festivals and fairs. Take Clapham Common. Lambeth Council applied for permission for it to be used for events for 105 days this year. That’s restricting people’s access to the ‘Common’ for nearly 30% of the year. It’s something that the Open Spaces Society has been protesting about.

Reasons to be cheerful

  1. Unlike the rest of England, road traffic in central London is falling. Take the City of London, where road traffic has declined by 40% since 1999. This is good news for air pollution and noise levels.
  2. Jaywalking is not a crime. We may put our lives at risk, but at least wandering across London’s roads won’t land us up in jail.
  3. Most of inner London (apart from Westminster) is now a 20mph zone, as you can see from this map. The safety benefits for pedestrians are well known: a person hit by a car at 20mph is eight times less likely to die than if hit by a car at 30mph. Reducing the urban speed limit from 30 to 20mph can also cut noise levels by more than half.
  4. There are lots more tools to help walkers find their way around. Phone apps like Google maps and City Mapper have revolutionised how we navigate the streets. More and better pedestrian signposts, map-based Legible London street signs and textured paving have also massively improved things.
  5. Greater London is 47% green with loads of open space to explore on foot. London is so green that it is set to become the world’s first National Park City in 2019. Some 18% of the city is taken up by public open spaces like parks and commons. Initiatives like investment in the Walk London Network have opened up some great walking routes around the capital, enjoyed by over 7 million people each year.