How we design liveable neighbourhoods with local communities

By Maia Tarling-Hunter,
Sadiq Khan mayor of London listening to residents

“I was delighted to see how the Local People project has been bringing the Kingston community together” - Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London

For place-making and street design, Sustrans, the Mayor of London and many London Boroughs share a similar vision of how we want our streets to work. We want streets that are healthier, greener and more attractive places in which to live, play and do business.

But what’s often most challenging is how we get there. We believe involving local communities through a collaborative design (co-design) approach is essential to deliver successful schemes.

Why involve local communities?

Involving local communities when designing liveable neighbourhoods is a no brainer. Local people are experts of their streets. Years of travelling through their neighbourhood by foot, by bike or by car results in a deep awareness of the issues and innovative solutions for them.

Gaining input from the community early on provides access to in-depth local knowledge and can save on monitoring, traffic count and modelling costs upfront. By engaging closely with local people from the beginning of a street design scheme and ensuring proposals tackle the problems they identify in the first place, the risk of local resistance during consultation – and a change of heart from our politicians - is substantially reduced. 

In fact, the approach is now endorsed by Transport for London (TfL): “An important element of Liveable Neighbourhoods schemes will be local engagement and involving communities in the development and delivery of proposals that affect their areas from an early stage” - TfL’s Liveable Neighbourhoods Guidance

Sustrans has championed the collaborative, design-led approach since 2004 with our first ‘Home Zone’ project in The Dings, Bristol. Our approach has helped us to develop bespoke walking and cycling solutions that reflect local need and – crucially – have local support.

When communities feel they own the solutions, they are also more likely to use the new infrastructure.  So there can be an increase in walking and cycling levels as a result of this collaboration.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” - Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Where is the co-design approach working?

Sustrans have recently been working across inner and outer London, making big changes with relatively small budgets.

In Barking and Dagenham, the Marks Gate DIY Streets co-design project has delivered healthy streets infrastructure to reduce road danger alongside behaviour change indicatives, including a women’s only cycle club. It has contributed to a healthier community. Following the project, 79% of residents surveyed said that they walked or cycled more due to the changes to the local area.

Funded by the People’s Health Trust, the Local People project in Malden Manor, Kingston-upon-Thames, has been bringing the community together through co-design and by trialling small-scale changes to the local streets. A two-month trial of public seating and play equipment resulted in support for permanent change from 75% of survey respondents. The project shows how we can use street design to integrate communities and change behaviour.

I was delighted to see how the Local People project has been bringing the Kingston community together.

- Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London

We’ve also been working with boroughs and TfL to use collaborative design to deliver better results in the Quietways programme when needed. When a modal filter was proposed on Estreham Rd in Streatham to reduce through traffic, for example, 60% of residents were opposed to it.

With the backing of the Cabinet Member and ward councillors, we held two on-street events and six co-design workshops which led to revised designs being taken to formal consultation and a six-month trial being approved.

Two-years after our first survey, 60% of local residents now support the scheme and have specifically said that the engagement and trial was what led them to change their minds. N02 levels have halved and the street is a much quieter and more pleasant place to be.

The judges feel that no organisation has done more to embody the spirit of healthy streets than Sustrans. We did not have a ‘greatest contribution to healthy streets’ awards category, but if we did then Sustrans would have won it without question.

- Brian Deegan at the Healthy Streets Awards 2017

How do we do collaborative design?

Our ‘Collaborative Design’, or co-design process puts the people who use the streets at the heart of designing solutions to local issues. When designing better streets for walking and cycling, these people - from dads taking their children to school to newsagents selling the Sunday papers, from refuse collectors negotiating the streets to commuters cycling to work – are experts in the problems that need to be overcome.

Our co-design approach is far more in-depth than standard engagement processes. Our early and ongoing engagement means we reach out to all the people that use the street, rather than just the vocal few.

We work hard to create multiple opportunities for the community to share their expertise with design professionals. For example, at an on-street pop-up event, a parent's coffee morning at a local school, a site visit with people who travel in wheelchairs or by joining refuse collectors for their morning shift. We:

  • provide opportunity for engagement and ensure they are accessible, comfortable and inclusive so everyone from the community can take part if they choose to
  • listen to the local community and we also make sure they know their voice has been heard by feeding back our findings to them afterwards
  • bring ideas to life through innovative street trials, enabling people to see and feel the change on foot, by bike or by car and then refining the changes before they are made permanent.

By working in this way, we overcome initial resistance to change and uncertainty, and enable residents to get involved and have fun in the process.

Our ability to facilitate collaboration between the local community, our in-house urban designers, borough designers and traffic engineers is special because it results in agreed solutions.

By involving the local community from the beginning, we are more likely to reach a consensual position – rather than a divisive yes or no often brought about by traditional traffic consultation.

If you’d like to find out more, or if you’ve got ideas for streets that could benefit from our collaborative design approach, get in touch by emailing [email protected]

Find out how we turn the vision of 'streets as places' into reality