Women | On a mission to claim their rights to this city

What do you do when half the population of a place don’t feel safe after-dark?

What do you do when the majority of those people are women?

HerBarking aims to transform Barking Town Centre with small acts of activism in the built environment to shape spaces and places that don’t feel safe through a series of urban experiments and installations.

Our mission is to improve perceptions of safety in the town centre, so more women feel safe.

Barking Town Centre is set to become an affordable mini Manhattan with 6000 new homes and £2 billion of investment over the next 10 years. Violent crime rates in the borough are lower than in other East London boroughs; Hackney, Newham but perception of crime and public safety far outweighs this reality — with 51% of population who don’t feel safe after dark compared to 21% nationally.

HerBarking is a women led project, funded by a Young Urbanist small grant, engaging local people to map and identify locations in Barking Town Centre where women don’t feel safe.


Mapping and identifying locations where women don’t feel safe was simple. Using sticky dots, we saw patterns emerging, here are some of the hunches people shared with us, affecting how safe people feel:

  • not enough ‘eyes on the street’

  • too many people (men in groups) drinking, shouting, speaking different languages on the street, in public spaces

  • narratives of violent crime or robbery in a specific place creating a shared history of fear

  • lack of night-time economy in the area

  • impact of social media e.g. Facebook on a place and it’s power to create a sense of (un)safety

  • wider perceptions of population/demographic change in the area and the often unconscious impact this has on (and open-ness to) feelings of safety, belonging and community

  • impact of litter, poor levels of care shown by the collective for environment


But, we wanted to go further than simply identifying spaces and places. We wanted to design changes we could implement and test to see what impact we could have on feelings of safety.

During a collaborative design session, we looked at each location in turn, asking:

If you were holding your best friend’s birthday party in this space what would you do?

The results were incredible. Through prototyping, we transformed each location into an experience of joy, colour and fun — with a budget of £50 per location. We gave women the permission to shape their streets and spaces.


The changes we’re proposing are not large-scale. They’re not expensive. But we think they could have a huge impact, even temporarily on how people (both men and women) experience space and place.


We’re currently seeking permission from the relevant landowners to build and trial each intervention for a two week period, during which we’ll observe and monitor any effects on behaviour and perceptions. We’re eager to collaborate and take action, implement and test the ideas, on a very small scale, to understand if we can alter or improve the perception or shared sense of narrative in a specific place.


After our temporary trials we’re hoping to be able to make the case for permanent interventions (and the funding required to deliver these) or recommend further testing at each of the locations.

I’ll update with progress on this. But if you’d like to see the other ideas, if you have links to connections or funds that could help us or if you’d like to be part of a collaborative movement we’d like to build for urban centres all over the world, please get in touch.

Do It Yourself: Regen

I recently went to visit an inspirational project near Hastings. A group of local people have come together to take ownership of a long term derelict wasteland, on the site of a former Power Station in the Ore Valley. Their mission - to disrupt the way regeneration works from the bottom up and build a new community made up of 60 affordable homes on the site. 

This doesn't maybe sound very revolutionary but the process and the people absolutely are. 

The derelict site in the Ore Valley

The derelict site in the Ore Valley

This isn't a nod to 'community-led' planning or design. It's real, chaotic, messy and human. I observe and listen as the local community organiser, Sam, helps to shape discussion on the real business of getting the transfer of the land over to the Community Land Trust. The group takes aim at local politics and spends a few minutes talking tactics to ensure local influencers pledge to do their bit to support the project at their next community event. Resident expert Jess Steele OBE pitches in offering experience and insight to the group about how to move forward and structure the events and process to make the most use of their limited resources and contacts. 

People not profit

People not profit

Members of the group talk about how the project, whilst still a derelict wasteland has already come to mean so much to them, improve their wellbeing and mental health. They tell me there's not much for them around here, but it's clear being involved in this project - picking up a hammer and tools to create an ad hoc stage for their upcoming event, searching for newt eggs in the pond like body of water, is giving everyone a great deal of hope, purpose and thirst for a different way of doing 'regeneration' and getting local voices at the centre of things. They talk with pride of local writer and socialist: Robert Tressell and point out graffiti scrawled messages on the side of the container 'People not profit' and 'Is this a wasteland?'. Fed up of rapidly rising rents threatening the long term affordability and diversity in the area, this project puts the action into activism in the most effective way. 

Kids ride bikes and a trailer over the rocky, unpaved only road that leads through the site, free to play in the wild. Tania Charman, one of the Directors of the CLT tells me how she wants to make sure that everyone who ends up living in the new houses is committed to a new way of living in a community, being part of the CLT and respecting the values of the project. They want the houses to be designed in a way that ensures interaction, not having cars running through the middle but ensuring space for play and community. They're aware if you don't design these things in from the beginning the original vision of a place can easily be lost overtime. 

Is this a wasteland? 

Is this a wasteland? 

The project is still in it's infancy but the plan is to use an Organisation Workshop approach to build the first and main building on site. This South American approach engages 100 long term unemployed local people to design and build a community building on the site - the experience of organising and building this gives everyone involved the skills needed to go on to build the other houses planned. 

It's easy to get depressed in our modern times, hearing of large scale structural and systemic barriers to participation, social change and equality. But projects like the Heart of Hastings in the Ore Valley lift my spirits. Genuine, chaotic, community participation to test and create a whole new way of working to solve a whole host of nationwide problems. And all without a 'post-it' in sight. 

Streets: They're ours for the taking

Reclaiming the streets

80% of the public space in London is made up of streets. They form the fabric of our communities, weaving us together, connecting us to other people and places. How they function for different groups of people using them can make us angry or calm, scared or playful, outgoing or inward looking.

Why, then, don’t we approach street design with the same degree of scrutiny and creativity that we apply to other aspects of public life?

A typical London street: a public space at the heart of a local community dominated by through traffic.

A typical London street: a public space at the heart of a local community dominated by through traffic.

Think about the preferential treatment we give to motorised traffic. Despite the continuous decline in levels of car ownership - 57% of Londoners do not have access to a vehicle - the majority of highway engineers are still focused on the unimpeded movement of motor-vehicles, almost to the exclusion of everything else.  Public authorities prioritise and invest public money heavily to maintain the flow of an extensive inner city road network.

At Sustrans - the charity who make it easier to walk and cycle- we know a different way is possible.

Working with local authorities and communities across the capital, we collaboratively identify, design and deliver changes to streets and spaces to make them more people-friendly. This means addressing speeding traffic, rat running and fly tipping, as well as breathing life into unloved or unused spaces such as verges, empty car parks, green spaces and alleyways. 

Underpinning our work is a belief that streets have huge potential for knitting communities together. Infrastructure and light touch interventions (such as greening and the installation of art work, benches and trees) can encourage people to walk and shop locally, encourage more day to day interactions between neighbours, and help to reduce isolation. Our collaborative approach builds community cohesion, fostering a much needed sense of community identity and giving people the skills and confidence to make decisions about their local built environment. A recent project on an estate in Dagenham increased the number of people who felt they had a say in decision making by 36%.

And we know this works. Successful Sustrans community street design projects have increased walking and cycling rates, decreased traffic volumes and speeds, improved road safety and all through a process that helps people to get to know their neighbours. 

The constraints of co-design

Yet progress doesn’t come easily. Many residents don’t identify streets as places that can be for people, while others actively resist the possibility, feeling this is a direct infringement of motorist rights to the road (even when they don’t own or use a car themselves. Small business and shop owners, in particular, are very sensitive. They often overestimate the levels of trade brought by motor traffic, and underestimate the boost brought by a street that’s easier to reach or spend time on, on foot or by bike. Despite having most to gain from improvements, shopping parades can be the most challenging stakeholder when trying to bring people together to create a more positive vision for a street.

At Sustrans, we use live prototyping methods to test street layouts and help residents reimagine their public spaces in new ways. Our co-design approach gives people the opportunity to directly shape their neighbourhood from the bottom up, moving them from grumbling about an issue to being active place makers.

Using live prototyping to get beyond traditional solutions.  

Using live prototyping to get beyond traditional solutions.  

But co-design isn’t a panacea. For all the virtues of a deeper democratic process, group-think can dilute bold ideas. Workshops and ‘pop-ups’ can amplify perceived norms - a general stigma towards people on bikes – and entrench myths around road tax, worsening air quality and congestion.

Take our recent experience of trying to create a more people-friendly street outside an inner London primary school, where children are frequently suffering directly through serious injury as a result of collisions. Collaboratively designed proposals include a series of multiple short crossings at ‘desire lines’ (where people actually cross the road not where you tell them too) over a 200m stretch while slowing traffic dramatically to allow time to cross. Using build-outs (wider sections of pavement) and colourful paint on the street we’ve seen a 27% decrease in speed and a reduction in the volume of traffic using the street, reducing both the likelihood and potential severity of collisions. But many local voices are still calling for traditional speed bumps and zebra crossings, despite the far safer, yet innovative solution on the ground.

On the continent, there are plenty of creative examples of citizen-led changes - from guerrilla bike lanes to painted junction treatments - which began as activism and lead to state funding when the benefits became apparent. But in the UK, our communities and decision-makers appear far less willing to play with the power dynamics of a street for the benefit of everyone.

Breaking free of incrementalism

Why does street design remain locked in incrementalism?

One reason is a lack of resources, which limits the time available for a candid and constructive listening exercise. Another factor is trust - or the lack of it. External organisations are often viewed with suspicion, while residents are wary of entrusting their local council with changes they believe are irreversible (even if it is just a pilot). Then there are the wider cultural factors, including the negative media portrayal of alternative transport solutions.

Local neighbourhood participation and action is a positive thing. The real challenge is how to balance the desire to empower people to make decisions with the need for a transformational shift in how we use streets and spaces.

A combination of grassroots activity and political leadership and investment must be the way forward. At Sustrans we try and act as catalysts, working with local people to facilitate the best decision that meets local needs, while having faith in representative democracy to balance strategic, local and often competing interests. But without strong support from local councillors and cabinet members innovative and safe schemes, which truly prioritise people and de-prioritise traffic will not succeed.

We need local councils to have the confidence to ‘show’ rather than ‘ask’, mirroring the temporary reallocations of road space in New York under former transport commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan (we call it ‘tactical urbanism’). We need brave local politicians who will lead rather than follow the loudest local voices, who are often the most privileged, and ensure that decisions are taken to reflect the views and transport modes of a wide range of people.

A healthier street environment for all with more pedestrian space, more trees and safe, short places to cross.

A healthier street environment for all with more pedestrian space, more trees and safe, short places to cross.

We need to create more opportunities to build community understanding about what good streets for everyone look like - for play, for families, for older people, for cohesion. We need to scale up initiatives like Playing Out and the Big Lunch, which give people the tools to solve problems for themselves and take action for their communities. We need to give people permission to build quick and cheap prototypes to tackle problems on their streets and trial traffic calming like the residents in Beechcroft Road in Oxford.

And for the most deprived neighbourhoods where road safety and air pollution are having the biggest detrimental impact on health, wellbeing and quality of life, we need to act quickly to empower and facilitate collaborative design opportunities for changing the built environment and increasing the quality of our streets and spaces. 

For despite being at the low end of all our day to day priorities, our streets are the places that connect us to each other, have dramatic effects on health, happiness and hold one of the keys to unlocking the potential to create thriving, strong, local communities.

This blog only represents the views of the author and no organisation.

Phillippa Banister FRSA is a people-centered designer and community facilitator. She works for Sustrans co-designing more people friendly streets and spaces in neighbourhoods across London. 

This blog was originally written and published for the RSA Blog and available to view here

Streets are places with potential - 5 ways to make your street a place

Streets make up 80% of public space in London and are for far more than just facilitating our movement from one place to another.

For too long city streets have been focussed around the car and moving vehicles around faster and more efficiently. We have forgotten the human element in our cities. Neighbourhood spaces and streets have the power to breathe life back into our communities, bridge the gap between different groups of people living in a small geographical area and give people physical spaces to connect in, in an increasingly isolated world. With people crowding into cities across the globe, space is our most important asset - yet most of our public space is taken up with roads, parking and often unused and unloved spaces. Streets are spaces we all share. With careful, collaborative design and community ownership, streets can transform the forgotten link between neighbourhoods, enabling people to live better and healthier together.

Having worked across London engaging with a diverse range of neighbourhoods, for the charity Sustrans, facilitating local residents to redesign their streets; I have seen how small changes can create hugely beneficial outcomes for everyone. I believe streets are one of few secret weapons we have to tackle some of the biggest urban challenges we face. Here are five steps to transforming your street into a place.

Step one

Get to know your neighbours. At the heart of any neighbourhood or street are the people who live and work on the street, the experts in how it works. I start every project with intense immersion in the local community - try to bring on board a diverse range of local champions who can advocate for improving their streets and inspire them with the possibilities and your vision for the neighbourhood.

Step two

Create a map of your neighbourhood. Plot your thoughts, where does it feel dangerous to cross the road, where does rubbish sometime overflow out of a full bin or where is it dumped? Which route do you travel to school or work, why? What do you love about your street and what or who gives it character? Try and unpick your initial thoughts and keep asking yourself and each other why. That way you’re more likely to get to the bottom of our gut feelings about why we cross where we cross or walk, cycle or drive a certain route. You might want to use a survey to gather different views or simply share and collect comments on your map. Don’t forget to use social media wherever possible to crowd source as many different views as possible, young and old. These are all important steps to take in identifying problems that you might like to solve e.g. a dangerous wide crossing point or non-local traffic cutting through a residential street.

Step three

Share with your neighbours and prioritise what the problems are. Do your neighbours agree with you? Perhaps organise a ranking public noticeboard so everyone can agree and disagree with priorities building a consensus among local people about what are the neighbourhood priorities. Remember to make the process fun and inviting for people to get involved in. Instead of organising a meeting in a hall why not organise a pop-up stall on street or outside the school gates. Musicians and other artists can really help energise neighbourhood engagement and bring a new positive dynamic and challenge unhelpful perceptions about your area.  

Step four

Experiment and trial interventions. Once prioritised it would be useful to share these with councillors and highway/transport departments at your council and explain your engagement process and how many people have been involved. If permission can be granted then our next step would always be to temporarily test out ideas that could help to achieve the changes you want to see. E.g. use hay bales or planters to test our narrowing a junction mouth to slow the speeds of cars entering a street. Create temporary public seating out of palettes and use bright coloured paint and stencils on the pavement and street to draw driver’s attention to people and think differently about the space. 

Step five

After assessing the success of your trials and experiments you will have started to grow the momentum and energy for change in your neighbourhood. Perhaps your local councillors can push for budget for the changes to be made permanent or you can kickstart your local campaign to make your streets more people friendly. 

What can happen?

A two year Sustrans community street design project on the Becontree estate in Barking and Dagenham, achieved the following:

  • a decrease in traffic speeds at key locations chosen by residents and the whole project
  • 56% of residents walking more since the project
  • 48% of residents now feel more confident to participate in community activities
  • road accidents reduced by a third.

Change can happen so don’t give up! To find out more about this project go to: www.diyporterslodge.wordpress.com


Plotting Parklets in San Francisco

I was recently lucky enough to make it to San Francisco after an epic cycle ride from Portland. As usual when I find myself in new cities I am most interested in exploring the streets and spaces I find, observing how space is used and how people interact at the street level. 

San Francisco is the home of the parklet and I enjoyed going out to spot these well designed spaces all around the city, slowly succeeding in transforming car parking spaces into people places. All parklets are open to the public and are funded by community groups, local businesses, even residents in some cases while collaborating City agencies organise permissions and ongoing maintenance. 

It was great to see the parklets being used by lots of different people for different purposes, spurring a level of street activity that couldn't be achieved within the constraints of a regular pavement. Whilst pavements provide for a high level of pedestrian movement it is unusual for there to be any space left for any 'place function'. The parklet is the perfect answer; people are able to sit down and eat, chat, drink coffee on the seating and benches, lock their bikes to bike stands and enjoy luscious, green planting as they relax. I even saw one parklet being used as a meeting point for a group of new mums. Very simple but very effective, proving Fred Kent's point: 

"When you plan for people and places, you get people and places!"