Want Innovation in Street Design? Then ask the local community…
The sun is shining on the Marks Gate Estate, in Barking and Dagenham. Over the last year I have managed a Sustrans programme of community-based street design and active travel initiatives intended to get people moving. Interventions range from quick wins to those producing longer-term results and have involved an ongoing partnership between Sustrans and local stakeholders. Nearly complete, the work in Marks Gate Estate will be a model for how to create healthy streets, delivering change to travel behaviour and improvements to infrastructure, air quality and congestion.
Over the last six months changes have really taken shape: Paintings of giant birds adorn the shop shutters. Bees and butterflies swim around the perennials planted in the new DIY Garden, outside the Marks Gate Community Centre. Since March a stream of cyclists could be seen riding back from Women’s Bike Club sessions each week; some of them having ridden as far as Havering Country Park, others learning to ride or practicing on local roads for the first time; their children playing Bikeability Level 1 games with a Sustrans volunteer in the park. Work men have been busy putting DIY Streets co-design designs into action along the high street, Rose Lane, and around the entrances to the schools. Mosaic flagstones, based on local school children’s designs, have been set into the paving. Benches will be installed, following residents suggestions at a two week seating trial during the previous Easter Holidays. Rose Lane has been narrowed in parts and the corners of side roads made tighter to reduce speeding through-traffic. Trees will be planted and the sense of place here further restored; already the buzz of cars is slowing outside the shops, where children can now follow a Yellow Brick Road to and from their schools and the park.
On Friday it is the DIY Street Party in Marks Gate. It is an event to mark the end of the project and to celebrate the changes. However, it will also allow a moment for reflection; the community and workers in the area were shocked and saddened by news last week of the death of a young resident many people knew well. This has meant Sustrans has had to adapt the event for the community so they can not only come together in a show of unity and good spirit, but also raise money for the funeral and acknowledge what has happened. As a project officer in Marks Gate, it has been a wonderful year of cycling, walking, drawing and creating with the community here, and while we considered postponing the event, it was the residents, neighbourhood police, church and school who supported the idea of continuing with the event. People are upset by last week’s incident but many also wanted to show that the perpetrators haven’t won and life must go on for the children and residents of the area and for the sense of community and place that the Street Party honours.
“We love Marks Gate, there’s great community spirit and it’s a lovely place to live. We need to show people that we’re proud of where we live and encourage them to take care and look after the estate and people in it” – Marks Gate Parent
When Sustrans arrived in Marks Gate we listened. It is always Sustrans agenda to encourage people to choose to walk and cycle, but first we wanted an understanding of the wider problems in the area and what local stakeholders imagined positive change could look like. There were moments in the project when Sustrans’ designers vision for how to solve problems didn’t necessarily chime with residents’ views. For instance, the suggestion of filtered permeability spurred fear of a road closure, which residents thought would restrict freedom of movement rather than encourage it (Sustrans believe this intervention can have the opposite effect). However, ideas that the majority of stakeholders came up with themselves, including Junior School pupils, were often innovative and exciting and carried the seeds of change to get people moving.
At our events we found many people shared the same concerns. One was the speed of cars. So we put four Automatic Traffic Counters (ATCs) along Rose Lane to measure the speed and volume of travelling vehicles. We recorded some interesting results – for example, at the counter closest to Whalebone Lane North one vehicle was going over 90mph. Rose Lane was also fairly busy, carrying an average of 1,500 vehicles per day. At all the counters it was found that 85% of vehicles exceeded the 20mph speed limit, including outside the school.
Residents suggested we needed to let cars know they’re entering a 20mph zone, by introducing more signs along the road. We will use trees as gateway features and kids drawings on slow signs to remind traffic to slow at either end of Rose Lane.
Residents also suggested we create a clear path for kids that follows the actual route people take through the area. We have built a Yellow Brick Road, which was suggested at a meeting of local parents. We also introduced a crossing point between bus stops to open up the space for pedestrians. Crucially we took away guardrail to do this. At the request of parents we have widened the pavement to the infant school and created waiting areas outside both schools, so as to better accommodate pedestrians and pushchairs.
Residents were also concerned about a smelly and often flooded subway that runs beneath the A12. We worked with TfL to improve the subway as a result. We painted a mural along the length of the subway, with help from locals. TfL added an anti-graffiti coating to this, gave the rest of the subway a lick of paint and fixed the lighting and drainage! We may still hang some pot pourri from the ceiling… Similarly, residents said the shops along Rose Lane needed a facelift to brighten up the shutters once they closed for the evening. We ran a week of street art workshops with children and young people to come up with ideas and designs for the shop shutters. Marks Gate Junior School student Gracie Dellar suggested a flock of birds leading people to Tantony Green. This idea was developed and painted on the shutter by freelance artist Tom Berry with help from local kids and volunteers.
Everyone I’ve spoken to in Marks Gate has mentioned the rubbish. So we decided to run some Clean Ups. As well as residents mucking in, BAD Youth Forum, the Young Mayor, local MacDonald’s staff and The Challenge (NCS) have got involved in sprucing up Marks Gate. While these aren’t permanent solutions, the community have been keen to take ownership of their local area and we hope this continues with the same enthusiasm and success. We still might swap some standard council bins for ones that look like animals though!
Lighting and Antisocial behaviour (ASB), or the feeling that residents are unsafe in Marks Gate at night, is an issue, although many people say the area has improved a lot over the last few years. We wanted to help residents with this problem but it didn’t fall within our allocated budget, so we partnered with the council and Light Follows Behaviour to apply for TfL funding to improve the lighting in the area. We were shortlisted and wait to hear. We also won funding from Tesco Bags of Help for a pump track for young people, who many residents feel don’t have enough to do on the estate. We then won further funding from North Meets South Big Local to run a BMX project and encourage use of the track. The track and activities will encourage further use of the green open space in Marks Gate and hopefully make the area feel safer. People made the point that there weren’t enough places to play in general. While there is limited play equipment, what there is is good. Most importantly, children can play anywhere! We hope that the summer of cycling and sessions for kids on Tantony Green, have encouraged its use. We also created a DIY Garden outside the Marks Gate Community Centre to bring the community togehter to maximise use of and take ownership over this space, plant their own herbs and learn new skills.
People bring up dangerous parking time and again, and while it’s not in our remit to build car parks we have reorganised the parking into inset bays and worked with the council and residents to identify where to put yellow lines to make parking and junctions safer. Local businesses have asked for more parking, we are hoping that improvements to the walking and cycling environment will reduce the level of car dependency in the area. However, we are also making two of the parking bays short stay to encourage people to stop and shop. We are also looking for ways to improve the lane behind the shops as there is no loading bay and nowhere for delivery vans to park. Another thing mentioned was the need for school coach parking, as the coach churns up mud outside the school otherwise. We have suggested the school can use the short stay bays when the coach is due by cordoning them off at the beginning of the day.
Shopkeepers stressed the need for trees, flowers and benches on Rose Lane outside the shops. However, as a result of concerns around ASB in the area we decided to run a two week seating trial using Sustrans Street Kit. We wanted to find out whether putting in seating would worsen ASB for residents living above the shops or whether it would dissolve ASB by diversifying who used the area and creating informal social control on Rose Lane. We did this over the summer holidays, arguably when young people have even less to do. We ran activities every day, including gardening, play and the smoothie bike. We surveyed residents about where they wanted seating and partnered with LBBD’s ASB team to monitor the kit’s use with CCTV. We were able to make an informed decision about where seating could safely be installed without causing tension between residents above the shops and young people hanging around in the evening below. While there was an incident of ASB reported, the kit came back to Sustrans intact. People overall were keen to create a more sociable space on Rose Lane and a whopping 73% of people agreed they met some knew while using the street kit.
We will monitor the impact of all these changes over autumn and winter 2016.
I have worked on lots of behaviour change projects intended to get people cycling and walking. This is the first to include placemaking in its remit. It has been the most holistic and therefore the most effective with a throughput of 6912 people at our events. In London, Val Shawcross, Deputy Chair of TfL, has made clear the political intention is now not only to make streets better for walking and cycling but better for the whole community. In Marks Gate, we have not simply added a cycle path but integrated walking and cycling with other modes. We have created a path (literally and figuratively) for people to walk and cycle more instead of drive, but we have done this through making the area more attractive as well as providing comprehensive cycle training. With the help of local residents and children, Marks Gate now has colour and character and lots more bikes. Sustrans can take credit for some of the change but the community have guided decision making. Residents want to come together, despite difficult circumstances. People want the space to socialise positively, whether that means on a bench outside of school or on a bike alongside friends. People want to feel proud of the place where they live.