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80% of the public space in London is made up of streets. They form the fabric of our communities, weaving us together, connecting us to other people and places. How they function for different groups of people using them can make us angry or calm, scared or playful, outgoing or inward looking.

Reclaiming the streets

80% of the public space in London is made up of streets. They form the fabric of our communities, weaving us together, connecting us to other people and places. How they function for different groups of people using them can make us angry or calm, scared or playful, outgoing or inward looking.

Why, then, don’t we approach street design with the same degree of scrutiny and creativity that we apply to other aspects of public life?

Street view
A typical London street: a public space at the heart of a local community dominated by through traffic.

Think about the preferential treatment we give to motorised traffic. Despite the continuous decline in levels of car ownership - 57% of Londoners do not have access to a vehicle - the majority of highway engineers are still focused on the unimpeded movement of motor-vehicles, almost to the exclusion of everything else.  Public authorities prioritise and invest public money heavily to maintain the flow of an extensive inner city road network.

At Sustrans - the charity who make it easier to walk and cycle- we know a different way is possible.

Working with local authorities and communities across the capital, we collaboratively identify, design and deliver changes to streets and spaces to make them more people-friendly. This means addressing speeding traffic, rat running and fly tipping, as well as breathing life into unloved or unused spaces such as verges, empty car parks, green spaces and alleyways. 

Underpinning our work is a belief that streets have huge potential for knitting communities together. Infrastructure and light touch interventions (such as greening and the installation of art work, benches and trees) can encourage people to walk and shop locally, encourage more day to day interactions between neighbours, and help to reduce isolation. Our collaborative approach builds community cohesion, fostering a much needed sense of community identity and giving people the skills and confidence to make decisions about their local built environment. A recent project on an estate in Dagenham increased the number of people who felt they had a say in decision making by 36%.

And we know this works. Successful Sustrans community street design projects have increased walking and cycling rates, decreased traffic volumes and speeds, improved road safety and all through a process that helps people to get to know their neighbours. 

The constraints of co-design

Yet progress doesn’t come easily. Many residents don’t identify streets as places that can be for people, while others actively resist the possibility, feeling this is a direct infringement of motorist rights to the road (even when they don’t own or use a car themselves. Small business and shop owners, in particular, are very sensitive. They often overestimate the levels of trade brought by motor traffic, and underestimate the boost brought by a street that’s easier to reach or spend time on, on foot or by bike. Despite having most to gain from improvements, shopping parades can be the most challenging stakeholder when trying to bring people together to create a more positive vision for a street.

At Sustrans, we use live prototyping methods to test street layouts and help residents reimagine their public spaces in new ways. Our co-design approach gives people the opportunity to directly shape their neighbourhood from the bottom up, moving them from grumbling about an issue to being active place makers.

street with pedestrians
Using live prototyping to get beyond traditional solutions.  

But co-design isn’t a panacea. For all the virtues of a deeper democratic process, group-think can dilute bold ideas. Workshops and ‘pop-ups’ can amplify perceived norms - a general stigma towards people on bikes – and entrench myths around road tax, worsening air quality and congestion.

Take our recent experience of trying to create a more people-friendly street outside an inner London primary school, where children are frequently suffering directly through serious injury as a result of collisions. Collaboratively designed proposals include a series of multiple short crossings at ‘desire lines’ (where people actually cross the road not where you tell them too) over a 200m stretch while slowing traffic dramatically to allow time to cross. Using build-outs (wider sections of pavement) and colourful paint on the street we’ve seen a 27% decrease in speed and a reduction in the volume of traffic using the street, reducing both the likelihood and potential severity of collisions. But many local voices are still calling for traditional speed bumps and zebra crossings, despite the far safer, yet innovative solution on the ground.

On the continent, there are plenty of creative examples of citizen-led changes - from guerrilla bike lanes to painted junction treatments - which began as activism and lead to state funding when the benefits became apparent. But in the UK, our communities and decision-makers appear far less willing to play with the power dynamics of a street for the benefit of everyone.

Breaking free of incrementalism

Why does street design remain locked in incrementalism?

One reason is a lack of resources, which limits the time available for a candid and constructive listening exercise. Another factor is trust - or the lack of it. External organisations are often viewed with suspicion, while residents are wary of entrusting their local council with changes they believe are irreversible (even if it is just a pilot). Then there are the wider cultural factors, including the negative media portrayal of alternative transport solutions.

Local neighbourhood participation and action is a positive thing. The real challenge is how to balance the desire to empower people to make decisions with the need for a transformational shift in how we use streets and spaces.

A combination of grassroots activity and political leadership and investment must be the way forward. At Sustrans we try and act as catalysts, working with local people to facilitate the best decision that meets local needs, while having faith in representative democracy to balance strategic, local and often competing interests. But without strong support from local councillors and cabinet members innovative and safe schemes, which truly prioritise people and de-prioritise traffic will not succeed.

We need local councils to have the confidence to ‘show’ rather than ‘ask’, mirroring the temporary reallocations of road space in New York under former transport commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan (we call it ‘tactical urbanism’). We need brave local politicians who will lead rather than follow the loudest local voices, who are often the most privileged, and ensure that decisions are taken to reflect the views and transport modes of a wide range of people.

street with kids playing
A healthier street environment for all with more pedestrian space, more trees and safe, short places to cross.

We need to create more opportunities to build community understanding about what good streets for everyone look like - for play, for families, for older people, for cohesion. We need to scale up initiatives like Playing Out and the Big Lunch, which give people the tools to solve problems for themselves and take action for their communities. We need to give people permission to build quick and cheap prototypes to tackle problems on their streets and trial traffic calming like the residents in Beechcroft Road in Oxford.

And for the most deprived neighbourhoods where road safety and air pollution are having the biggest detrimental impact on health, wellbeing and quality of life, we need to act quickly to empower and facilitate collaborative design opportunities for changing the built environment and increasing the quality of our streets and spaces. 

For despite being at the low end of all our day to day priorities, our streets are the places that connect us to each other, have dramatic effects on health, happiness and hold one of the keys to unlocking the potential to create thriving, strong, local communities.

This blog only represents the views of the author and no organisation.

Phillippa Banister FRSA is a people-centred designer and community facilitator. She works for Sustrans co-designing more people friendly streets and spaces in neighbourhoods across London.

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