What improvements could be made in Sheffield city centre after lockdown to prevent pre-virus pollution levels?

The Covid-19 pandemic has had one-silver lining and has been credited with healing the planet in a way never seen before.

Thursday, 14th May 2020, 7:30 am
Updated Friday, 15th May 2020, 1:26 pm

Transport use has plummeted across the country amid the UK government’s guidance to stay at home to slow the spread of Covid-19, and in Sheffield city centre it has resulted in much quieter streets and cleaner air.

People have instead found other modes of transport, with the city seeing a massive rise in the number of people cycling and walking during the pandemic as people take up active travel as a way to get their daily exercise, as well as to commute.

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An empty Division Street

But will things revert back to old once we’re out of lockdown? Councils around the world have already started to consider ways in which they can make their city centres safer and less-polluting.

Sheffield Council recently announced plans to make temporary changes to support social distancing of pedestrians and cyclists – including widening footpaths and amending signal timings at crossings to reduce the wait time – to maximise on the uptake of alternative travel methods seen during the pandemic.

Now, with the lockdown restrictions easing slightly, locals have offered their views on how the city centre could be improved even further.

Peter Sephton, chair of the residents association for Sheffield city centre ‘Changing Sheff’, has shared his views and the lessons he has learned during Covid-19.

NHS graffiti outside The Frog and Parrot on Division Street

He said: “During the lock-down, living in the city centre has been easy, convenient – pollution-free and quiet! I could do convenience shopping on foot with mask and gloves, while social swerving backwards and forwards across the road to avoid the occasional person.

“Inevitably the graffiti artists had seen it coming and were ready to praise the NHS. There have been friendly police officers, street cleaners and refuse collectors to chat to at a

distance of two metres. Plus wonderful convenience store staff doing their best to help.

“Always there are small groups of construction men in overalls and hard hats walking around with bottles of water from convenience stores – no sign of social distancing for them!”

Empty Sheffield City centre weeks into the lockdown

Elsewhere, he says there has been reduction in the homeless population within the city centre, with police actively breaking up groups that do congregate.

“There have been a few cars in the centre during lock-down mainly waiting to pick up takeouts, but why did most of the drivers travel so fast in a 20mph zone?” He added.

“Double that speed was common, risking the lives of people socially swerving into the road to take life-saving action against Covid-19 - only to risk death by someone trying to be Lewis Hamilton.”

There have also been questions raised over decisions made by Sheffield Council’s planning and development teams, with much of the city centre population living in high-rise buildings with no access to outdoor space, unable to use public parks under lockdown restrictions.

Peter said: “Planning policy - is it right? There are not enough outside spaces for the 23,000 people living in the city centre. There is minimal or zero outside space in most apartments.

“There are too many extremely tall buildings shutting out the light. No planning thought has been given to the height of buildings and the light they cut out from neighbours.

“I've lived in the centre for 15 years, enjoyed city life very much and often said that for elderly people, like my wife and I, it is ideal.

“But the councillors, planners and developers are allowing it to be monopolised by huge student-only apartment blocks which are not attractive to people wanting more space than a rabbit hutch – and no balcony for external space.

“On a more positive side, the air was amazingly clean. We could breathe in the improved air quality without sneezing or choking. The skies were much clearer - bright blue skies on sunny days. The blue sky has been magical. Can we have these benefits all the time? And hardly any rain. Coincidence? Connected?

“The wildlife returned! Deer, badgers, foxes in Sheffield city centre - amazing. But now it's all changing - people are returning and we don't have it all to ourselves.

“Life will come back, but so will the downsides of air pollution and traffic congestion. Lockdown has shown us how good it could be if we could get rid of the infernal combustion engine and have a much better planning policy to reproduce the quality of the Winter Garden.”

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