Street Space
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Street Space

The faint line between hope & fear

Over the last few days I’ve greatly enjoyed being part of some of the conversations and open dreaming curated by The Civic Square through The Department of Dreams. Hearing so many inspiring people articulate their hopes and dreams, visions of new worlds with justice at their heart and empathy at their core. It brought me and thousands of others hope in the midst of great uncertainty.

I was swiftly brought back down to earth to hear that a resident led project Street Space has been supporting and working on for over a year to transform two ugly footbridges over the railways lines in Barking had been rejected in our bid for £10k. This grant was to fund further community engagement, testing of low cost ideas e.g. mirrors, paint and planting and a full on feasibility study for permanent improvements to sight lines, accessibility and lighting.

The current state of the uninspiring Barking Bridges.

This was painful to hear. Rejection is always difficult, especially when there’s so much time and energy that’s been invested by so many working, for free. This project was exciting, local resident Tim had come to us for support with engagement process and expertise early on. There was (and still is) an opportunity for residents to dramatically improve an important asset whose condition affects the daily lives of 1000s of people and school children crossing the bridges each day. Talking to over 200 people at the bridges one afternoon last summer we heard how people felt deeply anxious using the bridge, disgusted at seeing human faeces when walking to school with their children, ashamed at the used needles, regular fly tipping and conscious of numerous accounts of attempted violence and robbery. We heard stories of fear and great suffering and we felt, together, we had an opportunity to try and make change.

Everyone we’ve spoken to agrees the current state of the bridges is unacceptable.

Listening to people between the bridges, Summer 2019

We had made contact the relevant officers at Network Rail and the local authority, both bodies were supportive but also clear that they didn’t have the funds or capacity to do anything more to the bridge than minimum cleaning.

We were motivated, this was a genuinely resident led idea with real opportunity and appetite for continued community ownership throughout the process from naming the bridges to being part of a collaborative design process to develop ideas for improvements. There was already evidence of demand from engagement and support for the project on social media, a locally invested CIC with expertise in engagement, collaborative design process and access to a network of relevant professionals — you’d think this would be a dream project right, ticking all the boxes!?

Sadly no.

The London Borough of Barking and Dagenham’s NCIL funding decision making process is highly innovative and randomly selects panel members from the borough population via census data. This ensures a representative group of residents who review applications, listen to the pitches from each local project idea, ask questions and decide which projects to fund.

I’m hugely enthusiastic about this approach believing in participatory decision making, that residents are experts in their area and that we need a real shift of power to people in communities.

So I was deeply disappointed when we heard the panel’s decision to not fund the Bridge project was because the panel

  • didn’t like the idea of us paying an artist (local or otherwise) to paint the bridge
  • didn’t think it was residents’ responsibility to be trying to improve the bridges
  • were not convinced the bridges would not be vandalised after the work was done.

Who can blame them, neither am I. But is this a reason to do nothing?

Every project has risks; small ones, big ones. It’s something about my work that I love, but also find overwhelming. Putting something out into the world, it might not work — but that’s how we learn, that’s how we take ownership. That’s how we grow into adulthood. I love the sense of possibility — that together, we can harness all our gifts and talents — unearth them from the local area like treasure and see how the bridge can best receive them. To me, these bridges offered huge potential on so many levels. To make something beautiful out of something unloved and ugly. I saw this as a highly possible future, even on a low budget — using small changes to make a big impact.

Low cost interventions can have a big impact. Images sourced from Pinterest.

Perhaps the resident panel have had enough of things that haven’t worked. They’ve been let down too many times. They would rather not take the risk of this happening again.

But this is when fear wins over hope. We give up. We let doing nothing become the only option and we give our power away and wait for others to do something, or nothing. And complain about it either way.

I’m not bitter about the decision, Tim and others, we’ll find a way around this, pivot and reimagine, we always do. But I think it’s important to tell the story. To understand the bubble I exist within, that thinks agency and community ownership is better for everyone, that paying artists for their time is important, that community engagement process design, movement building and facilitation is a set of skills and expertise that without, projects would fail or not get off the ground. All these views have seeped into the realms of community project makers and doers, their funders, local authorities and charity organisations, but they are not universally held.

There are lots of people who do not share these views, and it’s useful to be reminded, and brought back down to earth, with a bump.

I hope that collectively we can start to shape an environment that allows everyone to dream. Even the most hurt. But right now, I need to accept that some people don’t want to.

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