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In conversation with Jeffrey Young: transforming the streets of Camden

As part of our recent report, 2020: Our Air in Review, we spoke to Jeffrey Young, founder of Camden Clean Air Initiative and CEO at Allegra Group. 

The Camden Clean Air Initiative is an ambitious, not-for-profit action group working to increase the quality of air in the borough of Camden. Their aim is to transform Camden into a haven for walking and cycling, work with local government and major Camden-based companies, and champion borough-wide initiatives and policy change. 

Jeffrey spoke to us about what made him decide to take action, what challenges Camden is facing, and what he’d like to see happen in 2021.

What made you decide to take action?

There are several things that led to the creation of the Camden Clean Air Initiative. Firstly, with our kids at school, we noticed that their playground was being heavily polluted by car emissions. There is a bit of a dip in the road and bad air tends to sink, which unfortunately means that that specific spot is particularly bad. I realised that we need to do something to address the scale of the air pollution crisis in London, and create a healthier future for our kids. I also fundamentally believe that this moment of COVID-19 is making us stop and think. 

Not long ago, I was walking to work and got to the top of Primrose Hill and noticed that I could see further than I had ever seen before. It made me realise that we can’t just return to the way we were living pre-lockdown. Those of us who have the time, energy and resources need to make a change, because now is the time that you will be listened to. We really don’t have the time to waste, we need to maintain these improvements, tackle the air pollution crisis, and spark behavioural change.

What projects are the Camden Clean Air Initiative working on?

We have 10 long-term projects:

  1. No Car Tuesdays
  2. Block roads off to cars and vehicles and fill the space with trees and eateries, creating safe and beautiful places
  3. Convert 100 car parking spaces into parklets with space for benches, plants, and bike lock-ups
  4. Policy change such as a ban on parking in front of schools or idling outside of shops
  5. Convert 500 cars in Camden to electric
  6. Push for the construction of safe bike lock-ups
  7. Distribute 100 air pollution monitors across the borough
  8. Increase electric charging infrastructure around public housing estates
  9. Convert our Routemaster bus to electric with the support of our community to advertise our mission
  10. Transform Camden into a centre of excellence in the environmental and technological landscape, creating high-tech and high-value jobs

Sometimes, long-term really does mean long-term, but we’re working away on as many of these as possible. For example, increasing electric charging infrastructure: we’re working with taxi companies on this one. 

One of the barriers to getting more electrification of vehicles is taxi drivers not having a place to plug in overnight because in fancy neighbourhoods they can just pay for private charging points themselves. A big goal is the Routemaster – I’d love to convert this to electric, get sensors on it and use it as a billboard displaying the air quality as it’s driven around Camden: but obviously that’s a lot of money. 

A barrier to progress is working through the councils. There’s a lot of discussion that has to be had to get anywhere. And then you see things like the fact that Primrose Hill has parklets, but there’s no process through the council to implement more. That’s what we’re trying to do, to make it more straightforward. We’re just trying to accelerate what’s going to happen eventually by working together.

What is the main challenge Camden is facing at the moment?

There are undoubtedly lots of challenges coming our way. One of the big ones at the moment is that the Ultra Low Emission Zone is expanding into Camden this October. This is a really exciting opportunity for clean air, but there is either going to be a mass of cars that won’t be able to be used, or people are going to have to pay a huge fee to keep their cars on the road. There will also be some vehicles that need to be replaced by electrics and hybrids, which means there is a massive need for more electric charging points. 

The big question out there that no one yet knows the answer to seems to be hydrogen or electric? We need to think very seriously about a hydrogen economy, and put the greatest minds together to find the best answer for vehicles going forwards. We want to provide solutions that are open to everyone, and to do that there needs to be a lot of investment in new infrastructure.

What is one thing you’d like to see happen in 2021?

One thing I’d love to see happen in 2021 would be tighter restrictions on the usage of cars. The fact of the matter is, we don’t need to use all the cars that we do, and we will live longer if we walk and cycle more! We definitely need to make spaces friendlier for cyclists and pedestrians to help facilitate this change. And more generally, our cities need to become greener and cleaner, with more nature and respect for the environment. 

In the borough of Camden specifically, I would love to put some resources towards getting a proper dialogue with all the stakeholders in Camden who have a vested interest in making this place better. Instead of endless debate, I want something that allows us to come together and make some quick and meaningful decisions. 

Download 2020: Our Air in Review, to read more interviews and discover findings from our latest research.