I grew up in “the town without streets” – so why does anywhere need them?

Photo: Getty

I’ve always had a fascination with streets. Maybe it’s the sense of the unknown, the idea that despite the seeming uniformity there lays a different story behind every door, as its inhabitants go about their day-to-day lives within paved communities. Even as I write this, looking out the window at the sleepy suburban streets of London, there is a sense of shared intimacy in the private routines of these strangers.

So when I recently came across an old faded book on my home town, I was intrigued by its confidently asserted title: “THE TOWN WITH NO STREETS”. After reading this study of rural urban life, which, as the title would suggest, explained that the Northern Irish town I grew up in has no streets, a quick Google search revealed that the City of London, although full of streets, had historically – and largely due to a technicality – no roads. While the boundary changes of 1994 mean that this is no longer the case, it did capture my attention. What was it about these open spaces that provides such an insight into cities such as London? And how do streets differ to roads or avenues?

The answer, it turns out, lies in their purpose. While avenues are typically grander and wider, often being lined by trees and leading to an architectural feature, and roads represent travel from one place to another, streets are defined by their emphasis on the urban. Typically, they are a public space lined by buildings, which is traditionally a site of interaction. We may owe the road system to the Romans, but the Great Fire of London means that a large proportion of the city’s streets are predominantly modern developments, as the former network of narrow lanes and alleyways were gradually replaced. With London’s population surging from around 750,000 in 1760 to nearly 1.4 million by 1815, the Victorian period saw many of these streets paved with wood in order to reduce the noise from granite pavements, which local street vendors blamed for their dwindling custom. While only a few of these original wooden blocks remain today, some can still be found on Chequer Street, Islington. 

Streets also reflected the social conditions of the class system. As early as 1712, Joseph Addison had commented in The Spectator that various parts of the city were becoming different nations. One of the most significant statistical, although by no means flawless, examples of this change was the work of Charles Booth, who in 1886 started his project of visiting every street in London to record its social conditions. In his work Life and Labour of the People in London, Booth created a system which organised London households into groups or classes. Through this colour-coding, he was able to create detailed maps of London. A parallel of such work today can be noted in new projects such as the geographer Oliver O’Brien (UCL Consumer Data Research Centre) and his map of London’s ethnic diversity. 

One way in which this has been captured over the past two hundred years is through the work of street photography, aided by the arrival of the first Kodak camera in 1888. In 1876, John Thomson and the writer Adolphe Smith attempted to photograph the gritty reality of London streets in the magazine Street Life in London. By the twentieth century, publications such as Picture Post also allowed for alternative stories to be told. Picture Post’s photographer Thurston Hopkins was among those capturing candid shots of Jamaican immigrants as they sought to make a new life for themselves in London, after arriving on the Empire Windrush passenger ship in 1948.

Increasingly, modern understandings of the street have come to reflect a more politicised function. An emphasis on the street as a kind of pedestrianised community has resulted in the creation of movements such as ‘Reclaim the Streets’ – a collective which uses public spaces as a form of resistance against the corporate nature of globalisation. As local identity continues to be redefined, this has enabled the street to become a site of activism, where the global can be reimagined within the local.

The street continues to evolve as well as fascinate. Only in December, there was an event at the Bishopsgate Institute exploring the history of London’s street photography. As a site of urban innovation and reflection of everyday life, it’s clear the street is a thriving entity in its own right. 

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Copenhagen puts cyclists at the top of the social hierarchy

A cyclist in Copenhagen, obviously. Image: Red Bull/Getty.

Have you ever wondered why Britain is not a nation of cyclists? Why we prefer to sit in traffic as our Dutch and Danish neighbours speed through the city on bikes?

Forget about hills, rain, and urban sprawl: the real reason we aren’t cycling is much closer to home. It is not just lack of infrastructure, or lack of fitness, the reason that 66 per cent of Brits cycle less than once a year, is because of status.

An obsession with social status is hard-wired into our brains. As we have built a society that relies on cars, the bicycle has slipped to the periphery, and gone from being regarded as a sensible mode of transport, to a deviant fringe-dwellers choice.

Even though cycling to work has been shown to be one of the most effective things an individual can do to improve health and longevity, researcher David Horton thinks that there are a set of collective anxieties that are stopping us getting in the saddle. These include not just an unwillingness to be made vulnerable, but fear of being thought of as poor.

A quick look over the North Sea shows that there is an alternative. Danish culture has elevated cycling to the point of reverence, and the social status of cyclists has followed. As we have busied ourselves building infrastructure that testifies to the dominance of the car, Denmark has been creating magnificent architectural features, aimed specifically at bike users. The Cycle Snake, or Cykelslangen, literally suspends the cyclist above the city, metaphorically elevating the cyclist and creating a sense of ceremony.

In doing so, they are subtly persuading people of all backgrounds to see past their prejudices or fears and take it up as the clearly better choice. This means there are more women cycling, more older people cycling, and more ethnic minorities cycling. The activity is less dominated by comfortably middle class white males: there are cyclists from every side of the community.  

The Cykelslangen, under construction in 2014. Image: Ursula Bach and Dissing+Weitling architecture.

Despite abstract motivations like getting ripped and conquering global warming, it is only when the bike path becomes the obviously better choice that people will start to cycle. It can take years of traffic jams before people try an alternative, but if you make motorists jealous of cyclists, then the tables can quickly turn.

Another way that Copenhagen has done this is by taking privileges normally afforded only to the motorcar, and given them to the bike. The city has ensured that cycle routes do not include blind corners or dark tunnels, and that they form a complete, coherent network, and a steadily flowing system – one that allows cyclists to maintain a reasonable pace, and minimises the amount of times you have to put your foot down.

The ‘Green Wave’, for example, is a co-ordinated traffic light system on some of the main thoroughfares of the capital that helps minimise the amount of cycle congestion during peak times. It maintains a steady flow of cycle traffic, so that there is no need to stop at any point.


Small measures of prioritisation like this one increase the sense of safety and consideration that cyclists experience, making it natural for the citizens of a city to act in their own self-interest and get on their bike.

As well as redefining the streets around the bicycle, the Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog positively fetishises cyclists. The tagline “dress for your destination, not your journey” depicts the social fashion life of the cycle lane as a “never ending flow of happy people heading from A to B”. Its writers are  literally making cycling sexy, dispelling the idea that going anywhere by bike is odd, and helping the world to see that the bicycle is actually the ultimate fashion accessory.

So unlike in London, where cycling is still a predominantly male pursuit, Copenhagen sees a more even split between men and women. Not just because they feel safer on the roads, but because culturally they are comfortable with their appearance as part of a highly visible group.

So while our low level of cycling is partly due to our physical infrastructure, it is also due to our cultural attitudes. The mental roadblocks people have towards cycling can be overcome by infrastructure that is not only safe, but also brings old-fashioned notions of dignity and grace into the daily commute.

Of course, office shower facilities might stop cyclists being ostracised, too.