LOOPER Partner interview: Practicality over academic methodology when improving neighbourhoods through dialogue

How can communities envisage better spaces for their local future? LOOPER is a project that helps communities do just that: A story of how involving local residents can bring about real changes in road safety. It is the result of a collaboration between the University of Manchester, the Manchester City Council and Onward (funded by S4B), the housing association responsible for managing local housing services in the Brunswick area of Manchester. Sharon Thomas is a community development officer who worked closely with the LOOPER academic team, she explains how the project helped improve her local neighbourhood…

 

Cheering up stark and bland urban spaces

Projects designed in universities and municipalities do not always immediately resonate with local residents. Sharon explains that her job was to translate and sell the project to people. “I explained it was about testing improvements on things, like the parks and roads you see around you. What’s good about it, what’s bad about it?” One of the aims of LOOPER was to open people’s eyes and make them aware of their own neighbourhood and get them to actively think about what they would like to see in their daily lives. 

For example, through knocking on doors Sharon learnt a lot about how people perceived Brunswick Street, one of the main commuter roads in the centre of Manchester that many people use on a daily basis. “They said it’s their area, they love it and enjoy it, but they didn’t really like how it looked. Stark, urban, grey. Bland.” By asking simple questions about people’s daily environment, Sharon creates an opportunity for people to reflect, express their feelings and give them space to think about what they’re missing. In this manner, directly engaging with people revealed new perspectives that standard surveys may overlook. For example, people not only pointed towards crime and litter as main issues but also a lack of green spaces, which hadn’t been captured in past surveys. 

 

“LOOPER presented a great example of fruitful collaboration between local government, academia, and people like Sharon,
who work closely with local residents. She praises the project, as it “offered a new way of engaging with residents.”

 

However, Sharon stresses that in order to get local inhabitants involved, you need to be very people-focused, as residents are not necessarily interested in all the technical details of a project. Sharon explained, “we engaged inhabitants by telling them it was about asking what local residents could bring to the table, and not marketing it as just another research project where they were being observed.” For example, residents were given air quality monitors that measure the level of air pollution, which they could use at any time they wanted. Some were also given speed monitors to control the local traffic. These were all received well because they let local residents play an active role. 

As more roads were being developed in the area, people had become a lot more concerned about recent development plans. People wished to protect their neighbourhood from the potential negative effects of these developments, as “people wanted motorists to recognise this area as a place where people lived, and not just an access road in the city.” Simple measures that were implemented during the project 20 miles per hour signs, as well as a ‘welcome’ sign at the entrance to the neighbourhood. Sharon explains that this was intended to make people feel like they were going through a village, and adjust their speed accordingly. 

 

Geographically close, but mentally distant

An important outcome of the project was that it brought people together, and made them feel valued. Sharon explains that for many residents, the University of Manchester was geographically close but mentally distant. Many people had never been to the university, and never really interacted with it. By inviting residents to come to the main stakeholder meetings, these barriers were broken down, and people could work together under a common theme. “It made people feel special and valued, and created such a great buzz.”

Sharon says they were planning to give residents an update on the project and all the improvements that were being made in a stakeholder meeting on the 19th of March, 2020. Although this had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 lockdown, Sharon hopes to get back to this as soon as the lockdown is over: “It would be great to see how different organisations have worked together, and hear what residents think.”

 

Giving value back to people

Sharon thinks there is definitely a need for a follow-up project: “The community have been on a journey, and it broke down so many barriers.” The project facilitated concrete improvements in the area. Even though these might be small changes, like the 20 mile per hour signs, it shows people that having the right people in the room together leads to results.  Is there anything she would ask the project to do differently the second time around? Sharon thinks a longer timeframe would produce even more results, as there is more time for feedback loops between planners and members of the community. A second issue is that different people are interested in different aspects of the project:

 

“Some people were interested in the conversations, some were interested in the technical part.
So having some diversity within a project like this helps to have things that appeal to them
.”

 

Overall, Sharon looks back on the LOOPER project fondly and highlights its usefulness across different urban communities. However, she warns that asking for community engagement means that local authorities need to take an active role of following up on experimental improvements and making sure the good ones are made permanent: “Make sure you can show people the value of their contributions. Never forget to give them value to take back.”

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> Read the LOOPER project coordinator interview

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European Union

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 857160.