SUNRISE – New dawns for neighbourhood mobility

 

By Dr. María Teresa de la Cruz, Project Manager in Research Office at ZLC and Dr. Susana Val, ZLC Director and Research Affiliate at MIT CTL.

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Residents of urban neighbourhoods across Europe can face serious mobility issues (rural residents as well, but the issues here may be rather different). For the elderly, the young, the infirm, some physical impediments are obvious, but there can be other mobility barriers: for women and children or for LGBT+ or racial minorities around perceived safety; language and cultural barriers may limit access to transport; geographical features from hills or rivers to an arterial road may also restrict mobility, as of course does poverty. But mobility problems are not the preserve of ‘deprived’ communities – there are many instances of affluent, even desirable, areas that appear to have been developed on the assumption that every resident can and will drive a car.

Many cities and conurbations have adopted the SUMP approach (Sustainable Urban Mobility Strategy – itself developed in part by other EU-funded projects). But this inevitably takes a top-down view of the city as a whole, and often fails to capture the particular issues that individual neighbourhoods and communities face.  However well-researched and planned, top down policies too often feel to residents as though they are being imposed by a, typically white and male, car-driving class. ‘City Hall’ struggles to capture or predict the real-life impacts at local level of well-meant city-wide interventions. ZLC has been advising the Horizon 2020-funded SUNRISE project – for Sustainable Urban Research and Implementation Support in Europe – which has been exploring how to complement the SUMP approach with bottom-up, community-led Sustainable Neighbourhood Mobility Planning (SNMP).

SUNRISE started from the premis that local residents (including businesses) are by definition the experts in the mobility problems they face, but very far from expert in legislation, funding, planning and the ways that the authorities function. How do we develop ‘co-creation’ of mobility solutions? How do we capture their experience of how the community actually works, or should work? How do we put citizens at the centre, how do we engage new stakeholders, vulnerable sectors of the population?

SUNRISE worked with neighbourhoods, with varying characteristics, in six conurbations – Southend (UK), Malmo (Sweden), Bremen (Germany), Budapest (Hungary), Thessaloniki (Greece) and Jerusalem (Israel). A number of other cities were involved as observers or ‘take-up’ partners.

Traditional ‘consultation’ often fail. Residents are understandably dubious about how far their needs and reservations will be considered. More practically, if the issue is, for example, that people do not feel safe on the streets after nightfall, then holding a ‘town hall’ consultation on a winter evening is unlikely to attract those most affected.

 

Top-down initiatives are often driven by urban, national or even EU-level rules and directives. These measures being self-evidently virtuous, there is little involvement of the affected groups. They are often based around tax-funded infrastructure and equipment changes, and address higher-level rather than local issues, with unintended local consequences.

Bottom-up approaches, by contrast, are typically driven by local businesses, NGOs such as community action groups and resident associations. Often they depend on volunteer action or the individual initiatives of residents and businesses – for example, a shop owner providing cycle stands, or parents organising a ‘walking school bus’. Often these initiatives require little or no investment in infrastructure. They can build local identity, cohesion and pride, they can promote more joined-up thinking by authorities at local level, and to the extent that authorities facilitate local choices, can boost perceptions of democratic legitimacy.

There are problems though: there may be no formalised power behind individual initiatives (‘You can’t put that cycle rack here – you’re blocking a public walkway’). Building deep and effective participation takes time, and doesn’t respect deadlines. If participation is low, the process is liable to ‘capture’ by the most vocal participants, or the process may be driven by a few ‘champions’ who eventually suffer from participation fatigue.

But SUNRISE found that operation at local level can be leveraged through co-creation. The neighbourhood is, after all, for most people an extended version of the home and where ‘everyday life’ unfolds. Promoting life within the community is conducive to ‘active’ modes such as walking and cycling, and should strengthen local business, prosperity and employment (which itself may drive down ‘unnecessary’ transport activity). Interventions often require little investment, their results are direct and tangible, and if they need to be modified (or even abandoned) this can be done without loss of ‘face’, or accusations of waste.

Co-creation, bringing together citizens and authorities has four elements. Co-identification of mobility problems; co-development of solutions; co-implementation of the agreed measures; and importantly co-evaluation of the results.

An important element is ‘participatory budgeting’.  This means that the citizens propose a list of projects which, as far as they require significant public funding, (some may not, the authorities will of course cost. But it is then up to the citizens themselves to prioritise these within the available budget.

Through this process, people in the neighbourhood could not only receive the improvements they actually need, rather than those that ‘ought’ to be good for them, but also have a sense of ownership and empowerment which in itself should strengthen the community itself.

 

Working with other EU projects, SUNRISE has identified ten ‘big messages’, which may sound like platitudes but actually run quite deeply.

  • Utilise the advantages of the neighbourhood level (actions to promote activity within the neighbourhood which both improves local prosperity and reduces the need for longer distance travel).
  • Invest in citizen participation – in time as well as money
  • Educate, train and provide resources to enable citizens to participate in co-creation
  • Level the playing field (don’t exclude people because they aren’t ‘expert’ – actually, everyone is)
  • Be where the people are – decisionmakers need to know the neighbourhood as more than an outline on a map
  • Allow experiments. Some initiatives will fail, or have to be reversed because of unanticipated consequences. That’s OK
  • Ensure diversity and inclusivity. Almost by definition, the most mobility-disadvantaged will be the people who have most difficulty in having their voices heard. And you can’t assume that you know how their mobility issues play out in real life.
  • Manage expectations. Be realistic about what can be achieved and in what timescale, and about how much may be contingent on other developments.
  • Evaluate and value interpersonal and social results. Improvements in people’s lives don’t necessarily show up in economic data and statistics.
  • Look at the big picture. An individual’s mobility issues are generally not the result of a single factor, and can’t be totally resolved by a single action. A pensioner may be ‘trapped in her home’ because she is frail; but also because although there is a bus service the stop is on the other side of an arterial road; and because the street lighting is weak and she doesn’t feel safe; and because she can’t afford an alternative such as a taxi. But every little helps.

 

While helping implement these principles, we at ZLC triggered discussion around logistics. It is sometimes not obvious for city administrators that,  the sooner industries and businesses are involved in the mobility planning, the better.

Freight traffic in and through neighbourhoods is often seen as a problem, even an enemy – and with trucks forcing their way through medieval streets or suburban avenues, or blocking pavements while they make deliveries, it is easy to see why. So authorities introduce regulations on, for example, permitted hours for deliveries. This should make local streets, shopping area, public spaces, and residents’ access to them, especially by ‘active’ (walking, cycling) transport, more attractive and thus help rejuvenate the heart of the community.

But too often the effect is to so burden local shops, businesses and other amenities that they move away – the cure is worse than the disease. The local High Street may be a more attractive public space – but if there is no longer any reason to go there, nothing has been gained, and if residents resort to greater reliance on home delivery, freight activity may actually be increased. In Southend, for example, we found a desire to make the streets more attractive destinations, but it was not easy to convince people of the need to make adequate provision for deliveries to the bars and restaurants which are supposed to draw people to those same streets. ZLC’s role in SUNRISE has been to explore ways of promoting and including citizen-level consideration of these trade-offs.

This need to integrate neighbourhood urban logistics into SUMPs was one of ZLC’s ‘Sunbeams’ (nuggets of insight that the project has distilled). The other is that this is not only, or even primarily, about infrastructure – much can be achieved to improve quality of life through ‘soft’ measures that change citizens’ perceptions of what is possible and how mobility can work for them, often involving little or no financial investment.

 

SUNRISE has been spreading these and other messages through webinars, e-learning courses, arranging peer-to-peer meetings and other measures, Covid permitting. To learn more, please visit https://civitas-sunrise.eu/ or contact Dr. Susana Val at [email protected]