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Creativity can change our streets

A neglected Stockport subway transformed into a mini summer festival venue last week in the finale for a series of street trials by the charity Sustrans, which shows so well how communities can channel their own creativity, and change areas that feel disused or unsafe.

As a samba band and drumming workshop echoed around the park and subway tunnels we  sat with local families on grassy slopes drinking lemonade and sharing cakes. Bunting hung from lampposts and teenagers enjoyed a game of table tennis in the shade of beech and sycamore trees.

It was easy to forget that we were sitting in the basin of a busy roundabout, with traffic piling up to join the M60, and that people are often afraid to walk through these silent, graffiti-daubed subways. 

Stockport fell victim to an unsympathetic road infrastructure back in the 1960s and 70s, when the M60 cut a swathe through its close-knit communities, and created vast roundabouts, flyovers and subway networks to serve commuters driving in from leafy suburbs. Car ownership in Lancashire Hill and Heaton Norris is low, but local residents have all the unpleasant side effects of our road building strategy, left divided by concrete, fast roads and gloomy tunnels.

The subways event showed local residents and the Council that, with a bit of imagination, this small pocket of land has potential to be a safe meeting point for families living in Lancashire Hill and Heaton Norris. Artist Karen Allerton worked with the community to paint temporary vibrant directional lines through the subway to help to make entrances more welcoming, while children brightened up the subway walls with mirrored stickers.

Our festival was part of an 18-month community street design project by Sustrans with local residents which developed from a concept first trialed in New York. It is one of seven grassroots projects in Britain to demonstrate how small design changes in areas dominated by cars and car infrastructure can help reclaim streets for people, by encouraging social interaction, as well as more walking and cycling.

Funded by Peoples’ Health and local government, including Stockport Council, in the longer term Sustrans aims to kickstart further investment as community involvement demonstrates a case for change.

I am from Barcelona, where I know from experience that a vibrant street culture helps to create a safer, more people-focused environment. I wanted to work with the community in Stockport to find out what would encourage people to get outside and developed social events to encourage street culture.

As community street designers we use simple interventions, such as pop-up outdoor cafes, plants and temporary art installations to calm roads and encourage people to reclaim streets as public spaces. The more pleasant streets are, the more people will choose to cycle or walk down them.

Heaton Norris and Lancashire Hill are close to the Transpennine Trail, a popular walking and cycling route which is part of Sustrans’ National Cycle Network. While thousands of people travel through the area by bicycle or on foot, few local people use the path as access points can feel unsafe or underused.

We looked at various ways we could make the environment more attractive and vibrant. We created fun stencils on the streets to discourage dog fouling, a Halloween Festival of Lights in the subway, planting vegetables, bicycle lessons and rides, and children’s outdoor play. Residents on Belmont Street, Heaton Norris painted orange stripes and floral patterns on their street as a street trial to help slow traffic. Later they extended the pavement and sat down at a picnic table to enjoy a neighbourly ‘Belmont Street Supper’. 

Sustrans community street design work is funded by Peoples Health, and local government. Stockport Council supported us here in Lancashire Hill and Heaton Norris, and we are delighted that they have committed to further investment, with plans to improve lighting, drainage and vegetation management, as well as a controlled crossing at the top of Lancashire Hill and Belmont Way.

The Council also worked with us on the Stockport Arts Trail from Stockport Town Centre to Heaton Norris, which was created by local artist Karen Allerton with the Young Offending Services. The one-mile trail celebrates the area’s importance for the silk industry as well as the natural resources of the river and wildlife.
Sustrans has shown that this grassroots approach to changing our streets can really kickstart longer term action led by local communities. In Oxford and Peckham, for example, local people are now leading on events and artworks to make their streets more vibrant, as well as traffic calming measures. Communities in Garston, Reading, Southend-on-Sea, Derby, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Walsall are also taking small but exciting steps to change the way their streets look and feel.

Our streets can be pleasant places for us to socialise, walk and cycle. We just need to work together and tap into our creative flair.