On 5 May 2020 Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon made a statement in the Northern Ireland Assembly on reimagining the places we live and work in light of coronavirus.
“While we continue to do all that we can to protect our communities from COVID-19, we must also seize the chance for change. In responding to the difficulties, we have learnt lessons. We know that having fewer cars on the roads reduces emissions. More walking and cycling means healthier bodies and healthier minds, time to talk and time to be together. We have to use what we have learnt to imagine and plan for a better, greener, healthier, happier future. To that end, I have met representatives of the business sector and green sector to start an early discussion on how my Department can help shape a recovery and what we can learn from our response to the pandemic. We all share the belief that infrastructure spending will be crucial to restarting the economy. Investing in our transport system and our water and sewerage network would kick-start the construction sector and its supply chain.
“We also need to think about how we enable and support social distancing as we bring people back into the heart of our towns and cities and about how we give them the confidence to make the decision to return for leisure, as well as for work, when the time is right. At the same time, I am very aware that this health emergency has forever changed the ways in which we live and work, and it is difficult to ascertain the impact that it will have on how we use those spaces in future. However, in the darkness of the pandemic, we are being presented with an opportunity to reimagine those places, and it is one that we should seize.
“In order to give a real focus to a green recovery, where we will embed more active ways of travelling in the very heart of our overall transport policy, I am delighted to announce today that I am creating a walking and cycling champion in my Department. Our champion will ensure that we deliver on our commitment to increase the percentage of journeys made by walking and cycling, thereby inspiring our communities, restructuring our spaces, changing forever the way in which we live and changing it for the better.
I want to increase the space available for people who want to walk and cycle by extending pavements, pedestrianising streets and introducing pop-up cycle lanes. I have already identified some areas in Belfast city centre and in Derry city that can be quickly transformed, and I intend to work with councils right across the North to identify more as a matter of urgency. Doing that will transform communities right across Northern Ireland and inspire a new way of living in our new world of this new normal.
“I am clear also on the need for the work to be done collaboratively, so I will also be asking the walking and cycling champion to establish immediately an action-focused group of stakeholders, both in and outside government, to provide quick advice, to challenge my Department and to ensure that we consider opportunities and build on the positive changes that we are seeing when it comes to higher levels of walking and cycling during the current emergency. I also want us to work in collaboration with communities, including, for example, to identify and create quiet streets where pedestrians, cyclists and play have priority, and motor vehicles are guests.
“I am determined that we take action, particularly to address traffic issues in inner-city neighbourhoods. I want to make sure that we do things with, not to, communities. We have a wealth of organisations with skills in working to help residents to develop a new vision for their areas. I want to harness those skills to improve neighbourhoods and improve the quality of life of all of our citizens.
“This is not just an environmental imperative. We need to do this because it is a public health imperative. I shall keep a close eye on progress. I want to see ideas not just being talked about but being turned into results that improve everyone’s well-being. I am also looking for opportunities to weave blue infrastructure together with new cycle paths and footpaths, recognising that the better management of water in and through urban environments can reduce flood risk while creating more attractive and environmentally friendly spaces.
“This may be ambitious, but the one lesson that COVID-19 has taught us is that this is our world, and we must protect it by building a better future that delivers more for our citizens socially and economically, and delivering cleaner, greener and healthier communities.”