Creating a new route for successful streets and communities

Living Streets
recently held a conference entitled Creating Healthy, Successful Streets and Communities, which brought together professionals from both local councils and related organisations. It included presentations from a number of key speakers, as well as workshops for audience participation.

The aim of the conference was to access the most appropriate methods in improving local neighbourhoods in a sustainable way, to increase public use of space and walking rates.

Therefore, the fundamental theme throughout the day was the benefits of improving streets, shared spaces and local districts as a whole, as well as the effects of increased walking. These benefits targeted a series of wide reaching factors, including health and wellbeing, social relations, safety and crime, ecological management and finally related economic advantages.

There was further insight into how these benefits can be achieved; including reduced speed limits, use of street lighting and CCTV, the reallocation of space, use of greenery and trees and the creation of safe walking routes. We were shown case studies of various locations where these reforms had proven successful, including Brighton’s New Road and work in Exeter city centre.

However for me, perhaps one of the most exciting notions to emerge came from Oliver Davey of Urban Initiatives, who began to look at how to create successful streets within the framework of our current economic climate. This lead to the introduction of ‘new normal’; an idea that we need to readjust our default settings in regards to the way in which society will now operate.

After all, it is easy to assume that challenges and problems are mainly there due to funding cuts. But looking back at previous projects before the cuts, levels of success is debatable. Mr Davey graded regeneration and development attempts up to now at a feeble C+, which was met with a general consensus of agreement from the audience.

So, what will our new normal be?

The implementation of grassroots decision making and local interaction is a subject that is at the heart of a number of current political reforms, and this conference was not exempt from the eagerness to tap into its potential. How can we ensure the street improvements being made are in the interest of the people that will be using them – the local residents?

One suggestion came from the Living Streets organisation itself, based upon its use of community street auditing while working in Carlton with Glasgow Council. This involved a simple walk and discussion with local residents regarding the current issues of their neighbourhood, gathering information from their perspective and making plans based on their suggestions.

Further discussions in workshops highlighted the importance of maintaining a local identity within the area, so residents feel proud of their neighbourhoods and enjoy using public spaces. It is the unique nature and diversity of the ‘local’ that makes it such an appealing concept after all. Therefore development plans should be tailored to the needs and identity of particular areas in order for their individuality to be retained.

Another crucial aspect which may underpin our ‘new normal’ is sustainability, and through this, resilience. How can we ensure that the changes we make now will remain in the face of various economic or environmental shocks?

This means growth for the sake of growth should be avoided, and more emphasis should be placed on how an area progresses to ensure long-term success. Growth should be well embedded into a community so that it is able to withstand complications that may occur.

The CLES Place Resilience Model allows neighbourhoods to establish this through analysing the strength of the relationship between commercial, public and social economies. This relationship is considered to be the fundamental determinant of resilience, and can be reinforced in various ways. These include strong civic engagement, a strong public sector, sustainable forms of transport, strong networks between the public, private and social sector (how they are used) and closer integration of land use planning in local economic development.

Overall, the Living Streets conference provided an array of information regarding the effects of improving walking environments, how changes can be made, and suggestions on collecting data at a grassroots level. However, it was also able to investigate the implications of our current economic climate and the way in which we can overcome the difficulties it creates.

This provided us with a clear message: we cannot let a lack of funding and resources impede the journey to improve local streets, areas, and through this, communities as a whole. We simply require an alteration in thinking and the aptitude to embrace new challenges.

The conference therefore managed to bypass the sombre state of financial affairs and instead focus on formulating a new vision for future projects. This provided the audience with a sense of optimism regarding the next possible steps that can, and should, be taken.

There are still further challenges to be faced within this sector – that is undeniable – but with a restructured outlook on sustainable development on a wider scale, let’s hope the momentum gathered at the conference can be translated into affecting real change within local communities across the UK.


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