The other day I bumped into two Becontree residents on Gale Street who I’ve got to know throughout this project as they were looking after their grandchild. They were telling me that now the new bollards are in place their grandchild can’t stay a day with them without walking down the road to the station and giving the bollards a hug – it’s one of her favourite things about visiting! I’ve seen many children do the same as they walk past the colourful bollards; babies in prams cooing at the bright colours they see painted on them, over-excited toddlers stumbling to walk over and touch them and primary school children from Roding who worked on the designs for them in art class proudly crowing of their involvement by jumping on top of them.
Back at the start of the project two years ago when we were talking to lots of people in the neighbourhood about what could be improved, how to tackle high speeds and encourage more people to walk, it was young people and often mums who told us that “Everything is grey and boring, there’s nothing fun on the street – why can’t we make it more colourful?”
But alongside these suggestions and ideas there was also many people who felt the street was not a place for colours, fun or play. Many parents questioned coloured bollards in the designs and the playful wiggly wall planter outside the school on Cannington road – just the right height for waiting parents to sit on and kids to run along. Some were angry telling us “You’re trying to encourage the kids to play on the street – how will I be able to control them? It’s hard enough watching what all the cars are doing on that crossing as it is. These fun things are going to make it more of a nightmare for everyone”. This is a very real fear – one I’m sure is shared by parents across the country picking up their children from the busy, overcrowded, over-parked, conflict zone that is the school gate!
However, our work is all about making streets safer for people – more people friendly and more liveable – making it easier for people to choose to walk and cycle locally. We found that when discussing solutions with parents and residents it was hard to steer clear of imagining the only solution must be to find space for an enormous, ever-expanding car park near the school. Instead we wanted to work with residents and parents to re-design the street outside their school – putting them at the heart of the solution at workshops like these. We also wanted to empower parents to take action on small but significant issues like dog poo, overgrown hedges and inconsiderate parking which all add up to tipping the balance when parents and children are choosing how to get to school.
Many of the older residents like Jim have told me ‘in the old days no one needed any encouragement to walk to school – it’s just what we all did, rain or shine. We didn’t need any gimmicks – there was no other way’. Times have changed, car ownership has given us our ‘freedom’ but overtime rid our neighbourhood streets of people. To encourage more people to walk and cycle to school we need to make it safer and to do this we need to make our streets and spaces outside school more people-friendly.
Outside Cannington road the changes we’ve co-designed with residents have reduced the speeds by narrowing the road and raising it to the same level of the pavement cars need to slow down to negotiate who has priority and give way to pedestrians and cyclists crossing. The coloured bollards and paint on the street makes the street different – it’s not just another grey road but it’s clear children are crossing. It shouts out to drivers that this crossing requires more attention. Initially parents and teachers felt anxious about the changes and increased ambiguity of narrowing the road without adding priority signs for one direction of traffic. But now everyone is used to the changes people are much more positive. Alison at Roding Primary school told us, ‘It’s so much nicer outside the school gate now, much more open, less aggressive, happier.”
That’s why we’re happy when kids go and hug the round bollards they designed and run along the wiggly wall. They’re taking back their street and badgering their parents to walk to school. The street moves from a place of danger and disempowerment to a place of ownership, where they can affect change, interact with and be in. Places on the street where people can connect, form links with their neighbours, share and gossip whilst moving around the neighbourhood on foot or by bike. By calming the traffic successfully outside Roding Primary on Cannington road and other areas in Becontree this project is giving streets back to people, creating places to meet and socialise and starting the beginnings of rebuilding community.