Edit your neighbourhood
As we embrace new ways of living, working and moving around as a result of Covid 19 we’re witnessing citizens taking up space with new energy and desire to shape our public space for good.
Street Space is almost two years old. From our conception we’ve been about working with people to reimagine the streets and spaces around them. This is not an easy sell. Even with the aim always being to make neighbourhoods more liveable — spaces where people feel safe, even joyful, places where people can connect with each other.
From my experience people really can’t imagine how a street or a space could be different — and why would they? We work within one of London’s poorest boroughs, in short, many people have more important things regarding shelter and basic security on their minds.
But how and who gets to use our public streets and spaces matters.
The poor quality public realm found in areas of the greatest deprivation feeds a vicious cycle perpetuating poor quality of life. The poorest people often live in the least desirable housing, closest to busy and polluted roads. This means the most vulnerable children and their families are subjected to lung development and respiratory problems that have left more people susceptible to viruses like Covid 19.
Low paid work is often shift based and commonly located in areas not served well by public transport which, in outer London boroughs, only serve those who are commuting in or out of central London. Low income families are can be trapped in a state of car dependency to meet their every-day needs. This means that streets are dominated by cars and parking, people walking and cycling are invisible, feeding the perception that it’s too dangerous or just not practical to walk and cycle. Evidence also shows people are less likely to know their neighbours in streets with higher traffic, so hyper local community connectivity also suffers. This toxic mix of infrastructure, behaviour, economy, culture and the design of the public space we share leads to an unequal starting point for so many families, en route to poorer health, higher cost of living and lower quality of life.
When we speak to people about their vision for a better neighbourhood in projects like Greening The Fiddlers, of course people want it to be safer, for walking to be easier and more pleasant, for crossings to be in the right place, for their children to play out, to have more spaces to gather with their neighbours. But it’s always been incredibly difficult to collectively imagine any of these huge obstacles shifting. We have been fighting a far stronger narrative that none of the future we might want is possible.
But the coronavirus has given us a glimpse of an opportunity. Albeit at a huge cost of human life, grief, fear, suffering and uncertainty; with no promise that any of the inequalities we see today will not be widened as a result of the pandemic. Problems remain, worsened for those already on the margins, struggling, more than ever to get by.
Suddenly, there’s a chink in the armour of ‘normal’. With the Mayor’s #StreetspaceLDN programme (we’ll take credit for the name thanks!) dramatically changing the face of London’s central grid and boroughs radically re-distributing public space in favour of walking and cycling, there’s a new conversation to be had about what’s possible.
Many people won’t like it, this won’t be what they’d imagined or what they feel is right, many won’t feel included or that they’ve had a say. But it is radical and it shows that nothing can stay the same — this opens up the space, hopefully for everyone, to believe that we can perhaps all be the masters, in some small way, of how our neighbourhood looks and feels.
From self organised movements such as Tactical Urbanistas reclaiming road space for pedestrians to aid social distancing, to borough-led interventions ridding residents of rat running through traffic on their streets — we are showing that the time for reimagining is now.
Our role at Street Space is to continue to make the shaping of neighbourhoods and our cities open and inclusive. To listen to people at the edge and find ways to amplify voices that aren’t heard. To test and play with new approaches and ideas for streets before they’re inscribed to tarmac. To enable everyone to take part in actively reimagining streets and spaces — to make them more liveable, in a way that’s meaningful to them.
We’ll be holding interactive online design workshops for local residents in the Becontree Heath low emission neighbourhood over the next few weeks, using a whole range of fun virtual tools to design together. This is just one of the ways we’re continuing to build relationships, engaging people on what matters to them in their neighbourhood, because we know online doesn’t reach everyone.
We’re looking forward to supporting people to ‘edit their neighbourhoods’ both on screen and in real life, in little and big ways as we move towards a future conversation where nothing is off limits!