Van Gogh Walk in Lambeth is a fabulous people-friendly street but highlights need for more Dutch-style residential zones

Van Gogh Walk in the London borough of Lambeth was treated to a dramatic facelift earlier this year. What was previously nondescript shabby Isabel Street, has become an oasis of sophistication, a street that even has its own Twitter account.

Named in honour of artist Vincent Van Gogh, who lived in nearby Hackford Road in the 1870s, the new urban space uses raised tables at entry points to slow down motor vehicles, and there are signs warning of ‘children at play’. Materials used include attractive paving blocks for the carriageway, shiny cycle parking stands that spell out the street’s initials, plus dark stone planters that provide a setting for the abundant plants and shrubs.

Visually, it’s stunning, and those planters also form a modal filter, preventing motor traffic from passing from Morat Street to Liberty Street. A basketball hoop and climbing frame signal the architects' intention that this is a child-friendly public space, not just another chunk of carriageway.

Local residents are certainly pleased, heaping praise on the scheme, which has been nominated for a New London Architecture award:

"It’s like a square from a small Italian town"

"We’re proud to live here"

"What a lovely peaceful and calm haven in the heart of London"

"Transformed into something of an urban idyll"

Other local improvements include around 40 lockable bike sheds that have been installed by Lambeth Council, working closely with Cyclehoop, in surrounding streets to encourage residents to travel by bicycle. There's a 20mph speed limit on some surrounding roads, a new zebra crossing outside the nearby Reay Primary School, where there’s also some evidence of traffic-calming on the junction between Hackford Road and Caldwell Street.

Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh lodged in Hackford Road, adjacent to Van Gogh Walk, from 1873-74, while working as an art dealer in Covent Garden. His time there, including his unrequited love for his landlady’s daughter and his walks to work in central London, has been dramatised in the 2003 play Vincent In Brixton. Van Gogh Walk was opened officially on 30 March of this year, 160 years to the day after the artist was born. 

The street design is intended to reflect van Gogh’s interest in walking, gardens and nature, and the walls and planters have been decorated with words van Gogh wrote to his brother talking of his love for the city of London (see photo).

The street transformation was made possible by a number of factors: the developers of the nearby Freemans catalogue building on Clapham Road, Galliard Homes, provided a pot of Section 106 money (where developers are made to pay for local infrastructure improvements from their profits), while the rest of the £420,000 cost came from Transport for London’s grant to the borough council. Lambeth worked closely with residents to transform what had been characterised as “a dimly lit back road that some were too scared to walk at night” into a more attractive and people-friendly street.

Councillor Imogen Walker, Lambeth cabinet member for environment and sustainability and Stockwell councillor, said: 

“This project is a great example of residents and the council working together in a truly co-operative way, and has delivered not only a cleaner, greener and safer street for our current residents, but also one that honours one of the borough’s most famous past inhabitants.”

Local campaign group Streets Ahead, which lobbied for the improvements and worked with the council, was set up in 2005 by local residents keen to improve the community around two schools in the area, Reay Primary School and Durand Academy. The group started with gardening projects and neighbourhood events, and then lobbied for a zebra crossing outside the junior school, eventually working up to this major project involving councillors, council officers, architects, the police, and many others. The transformation of Isabel Street into Van Gogh Walk is a testament to the power of a small number of people to effect change at their local area, given favourable conditions such as finance and a sympathetic local authority.

On the occasions we’ve visited the street, it has been a very pleasant experience. There have been some grumblings that some cycling turns through the junction appeared to be banned at launch by the signage. However, it appears these were an oversight and the architects only ever wanted to restrict motor traffic movements. The road is one-way from Morat Street to Hackford Road for motor traffic, and in practice you can cycle anywhere through it as long as you give pedestrian priority.

So, is it all smiles in SW9? Well, children at the local schools have a fun new play area, while adults have a place to sit or stroll in the evening. The council has had bags of positive local coverage, as well as stories in the Evening Standard and on the ITV website. The project will no doubt be beneficial for property prices in the immediate vicinity, and – perhaps most importantly - a principle has been established that it can be a very good idea to restrict motor traffic on residential streets.

Looking at the surrounding streets, however, we can’t help thinking this principle is sorely needed on many more residential streets in this neighbourhood, as well as across Lambeth and all over Greater London. There are a number of streets just a few minutes away from Van Gogh Walk that are still unpleasant rat-runs, with private cars and commercial vehicles cutting through from Brixton Road to Clapham Road and vice versa. Nearby Fentiman Road has long been identified as a rat-run, where fast motor vehicles put local residents and people using London Cycling Network route 3 in danger. 

And it’s worth making the point that creating people-friendly streets doesn’t have to cost much money. Simply removing through traffic with bollards doesn’t always create the kind of headline-grabbing environments liked by politicians, but for a fraction of the cost it’s possible to create child-friendly streets and boost house prices. One street I cycle through every day – Stevenson Crescent in Bermondsey – is blocked to through-motor-traffic (see photo), which is why it’s not at all unusual to see children playing on the street there, in the road on roller skates or just sitting on the kerbside talking. 

We must support schemes Van Gogh Walk, which transform through-roads into destinations – something we might characterise as ‘urban parks’ – but we clearly can’t spent half a million pounds on every 100 metres of city street. The success of this scheme shouldn’t stop us clamouring for area-wide programmes to reduce motor traffic in residential areas.

When we talk about segregating bicycles from motor traffic in the Dutch way, it’s often assumed we only mean building separated cycle paths. On the contrary, in the Netherlands the authorities go to extreme lengths to ‘separate’ bicycle traffic from through motor traffic, even though cars and bikes still share the same carriageway.

We look forward to the day when Van Gogh Walk is just one of hundreds of thousands of people-friendly residential streets in Greater London. It will take transformations on this scale to create the mass cycling that will create a cleaner, safer, healthier and happier city.