National and local Governments’ initial responses to the pandemic included a raft of temporary measures, including street narrowing and closures, raised planters and a sea of barriers, bollards and signage, all intended to transfer more space for people from traffic, enabling social distancing. Many of these measures proved unpopular and should be removed over the coming months. But simply reverting to the previous vehicle-led designs is not the answer, and new, attractive solutions are needed for the future.
Rethinking the urban environment
It is now clear that the pandemic has triggered a fundamental rethink about other aspects of how we live and work. The Government has launched ‘active travel’ initiatives encouraging walking and cycling to reduce obesity, while home working and the growth of online shopping have created a debate about new ‘15-minute neighbourhoods’ and the reinvention of the suburbs as well as town centres. The new ‘low-traffic neighbourhoods’ – a reminder of previously adopted ‘home zones’ – highlight a move away from car dependency and the paving needed for them, in favour of shared spaces where pedestrians and cyclists feel at home and car drivers considered as visitors.
These initiatives are being embraced again by local authorities in planning policies and masterplans. One visionary example is the Essex new town of Chelmsford Garden Village, where limited car parking will gradually be converted to new uses, such as communal gardens, as centrally-located self-driving electric cars become a reality. With uncertainty about how new requirements will pan out over time, a flexible and adaptable approach to urban paving is essential. Designers should now seize the opportunity to reinvent the public realm and take the lead in developing innovative, sustainable and attractive solutions.
Modular concrete paving systems are ideally placed to meet these new challenges, whether on new or retrofitted schemes. Adopting the principles of ‘modern methods of construction’, factory-produced modular concrete paving delivers fast, low-cost installation, with limited intervention – particularly essential for retrofits. Importantly, in these uncertain times, layouts can easily be altered and modular concrete paving taken up and re-used to meet changing demands, providing a long-term, sustainable asset.
The distinct, modular units and designed variations in colour, texture and shape can break up areas giving ‘kerb appeal’ and a human scale not possible with monotonous, formless materials. So, modular concrete paving delivers a unique combination of predictability, safety and accessibility for all, with scope for endless variety in shape, scale, colour and texture to enrich the urban environment. It offers potential for real ‘places for people’ that are both multifunctional and adaptable to change.
With COVID-19, many longer-term issues, considered important for some time but left on the back-burner, are now re-surfacing with the current emergency acting as a catalyst accelerating action. Stemming from our approach to water in the urban environment with climate change, these issues have major implications for the built environment, including paving for both new and regeneration projects. In particular, this winter’s flooding is a timely reminder of the importance of sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) in reducing the damaging impacts of rainwater run-off.
But SuDS techniques, such as permeable paving, offer far more than flood reduction. As well as structural pavements suitable for applications ranging from container terminals to pedestrian areas, concrete block permeable paving also provides an inherent drainage system that requires no additional land take for water storage, treatment or conveyance. It can retain water within the paving construction during flood events, for gradual discharge. And it also removes water-borne pollution, providing a controlled flow of clean water at the head of the ‘SuDS management train’, enabling safe, open SuDS features on the surface.
Water from permeable paving is important for biodiversity and green infrastructure – particularly trees, essential to cooling our towns and cities in summer and reducing air pollution. And the presence of water within permeable paving itself offers potential for evaporative cooling, in addition to the high solar reflectance (or albedo) of many concrete paving surfaces.
Paving safety and comfort
Rainwater puddles are eliminated, reducing the risk of ice forming on the surface and preventing splashing from standing water, as are the ubiquitous potholes that threaten cyclists as well as vehicles. Permeable paving can provide a completely level, well-drained, firm and slip-resistance surface accessible to all, without the need for cross-falls, channels, gulleys or other interruptions.
As well as for full-depth, new paved areas, the multifunctional benefits of concrete block permeable paving technology can also be exploited to regenerate existing conventional streets and other areas. Applied as a thin overlay on existing road bases, concrete block permeable paving infills between kerbs raise the surface up to footway level, transforming the whole area into an appealing, safe and comfortable shared surface. Rainwater runs straight off the surface without gulleys and is attenuated and cleaned before discharging – potentially to adjacent, planted rain gardens or bioretention areas to sustain green infrastructure.