For Tottenham mother Deborah Willemen, cycling is like breathing. She has a formidable presence on social media about cycling for mobility, health and the environment and she's not afraid to challenge people's misconceptions or wrong information about it. An activist by nature, Deborah has recently co-founded the group "Parents for Healthy Streets Haringey" which is dedicated to networking with parents and to educate members of the public and council to work towards Healthy Streets in Haringey. Rachel Ho caught up with Deborah to find out more.
Photo supplied: Deborah Willemen
Where did you grow up and what did your parents do?
I grew up in a little town in Belgium called Hasselt is in the east of the country near the German border. My parents were both civil servants but they are retired now.
Describe your relationship to Tottenham.
I moved to Tottenham in 2015 (from Belgium) and first I thought: “oh my word what is this?”I lived in London before, in my 20s but I was living in zone two in south London. Zone three in North London was quite the culture shock.
I came to live here because I couldn’t find a place to rent anywhere else. Tottenham quite quickly grew on me though. The community is really tight knit and the people living here are amazing and wonderful. I made friends and contacts really quickly. I have always been someone who believes that a community is made of the people who live in it. And if you want meaningful change in your community you have to lead by example and do it yourself.
You shouldn’t wait for community leaders like politicians to do it for you. That’s why I think Tottenham is great, because there is so much potential for doing amazing things.
You are quite active on social media about the benefits of cycling and some of the challenges cyclist face in London. What led you to be so passionate about it? This is a really long question to answer because I can talk about this forever and a day. I was born and raised in Belgium so basically I was born and raised with a bicycle stuck to my backside. My first memories were of my grandad giving me a backie on the way to school. I’d be hiding under his poncho because it would be raining and I didn’t want to get wet. Cycling in my family was a natural thing to do, just like breathing. We wouldn’t take the car out for short journeys at all.
When I had children we used to walk everywhere in the beginning. When I had my son, who is my second child, I started to realise that walking was taking a lot of effort and I could preserve my sanity and my energy if I would just cycle.
Cycling on a regular bike with two children is quite hard though so I started investigating how to do this in a way without me keeling over under the weight. That’s when I stumbled upon the box bike or cargo bike as we call it now. I’ve been cycling cargo bikes since my son was really small.
Photo supplied: Deborah's kids in a cargo bike
My kids are now 8 and 11 so we don’t use the cargo bike as much anymore as they cycle themselves. When we moved to London cycling became much more of a safety issue. Whereas in Belgium we had cycle lanes to keep us safe; over here we didn’t have anything.
I started investigating how many people would get hurt or even killed here on the roads and the amount of people that got killed was quite something. In fact it was staggering. Some months we would get one or two deaths on the road. Just a person on a bike, like me going about their own business, not coming home that evening.
I realise that growing up and living in Belgium had some serious privileges. In Belgium we have presumed liability, we have cycle lanes, and we have drivers who genuinely don’t see people on bikes like the enemy (a thing which is a really awful social reoccurrence in this country).
Over here drivers have a real sense of entitlement. I am actually typing this now while hearing a joy rider going through my street. He has been on it for the past hour. Try telling parents that cycling is the best alternative for them with such people claiming the roads and no visible protections for the most vulnerable.
So yes, cycling to me was a means to an end. Ferrying kids and accessories of these kids around, without losing too much time and energy. A quick way from getting from A to B without faff. All the other benefits to cycling came second to that one necessity. A car was too expensive, I didn’t want to contribute to more air pollution (as there is already enough) and I wanted to stay healthy. A bike was the obvious solution.
Tell us about Parents for Healthy Streets Haringey and how it came about?
Parents for Healthy Streets Haringey is a group who wants to engage more parents who are fed up with unhealthy streets. A healthy Street is a street where people choose to walk ,cycle or take public transport. It is a street where car use is curbed, in favour of active travel.
Another marker of a healthy streets is clean air. As you might know we have an air-pollution crisis in the city. Nearly 10,000 people per year die in London from air pollution related diseases. The lungs of our children are severely stunted. And we have many children suffering from asthma and respiratory problems.
Photo source Twitter: Deborah and her son.
As Haringey is severely lacking in enabling people to active travel, we have set up this group, to lobby the council more effectively.
We hear a lot of pledges and manifestos brought about by the council, but when it comes to effectively doing something, we are still waiting. We have been waiting for years.
Parents for healthy streets Haringey wants to become a single voice to tell the council what we want them to do for our children. One of these things is the implementation of school streets. School Street are streets which are blocked off at drop-off and pick up time. Forcing parents who drive to start walking to school. It is a very effective measure, which has been successfully introduced in Hackney, Camden and other boroughs.
We demand the council to build protected cycle lanes (no paint on the road), filtered streets and liveable neighbourhoods where it is nice to be outside without the fear of being run over. We are asking for a stop to this car is king culture and to put the health of our young ones first.
As a woman, how do you think the Tottenham has changed? What would you like to see change?
In the three and a half years that I’ve lived here I have seen Tottenham change already. Some changes for the better, and some changes for the worse. However, I see Tottenham as a blank canvas. A canvas on which we can make our own wonderful painting.
When I moved here I was the only cargo bike parent. Now there are at least three other parents in my neighbourhood cycling cargo bikes. There are many more parents who are terribly concerned about the air-pollution our children breathe. Whereas three years ago nobody seemed too concerned.
Photo source Twitter: Deborah's son & bike.
It felt even last year I was the only person being very vocal in Tottenham about these issues. But now I’m not alone anymore. We have grown into a big voice. And I hope it will become a voice to be reckoned with.
Favourite thing to do in Tottenham?
One of my favourite things to do in Tottenham, on my day off, is to visit places like the Tottenham marshes and the Waterside café. I also love going to prestige patisserie to get a nice cake and a well-made coffee (thank you George). Although I think the marshes are one my favourite parts of living here. Walking there really recharges my batteries and give me that moment of zen in an otherwise very busy week.
Join the Parents for Healthier Streets Haringey Facebook Group