1. Built environment
  2. Architecture & design
January 7, 2015updated 20 Jul 2021 2:26pm

Residents of the east London suburb of Dagenham are painting the streets in pink and blue

By Phillippa Banister

The flamingos that used to live in Parsloes Park are long gone. It’s hard to imagine a flock of exotic birds living in Dagenham, a rather down-at-heel part of east London, but they did: their shocking, pink feathers once brightened up a small corner of suburbia.

Today Dagenham is the recipient of a colour revolution of another kind, as the local community transform the area, armed with paint brushes. A lick of paint has proved a powerful antidote for a community that had lost faith in itself.

Some older, local residents say that when the flamingos left the neighbourhood, lots of other things left too: a sense of community, quiet streets for children to play on their bikes, and the freedom that allowed them to explore and extend their worlds every summer. It’s with sadness that many residents talk about the Becontree Estate’s great history. Built between the wars, it was the largest public housing estate ever constructed. Today, though, the gardens have become overgrown, litter gathers on the streets, and people rush past each other, consumed by their mobile phones, rather than taking an interest in the world and those around them. It’s easy to feel like something in this community is broken that can never be rebuilt.

But this doesn’t have to be the story. This community has thrown itself into DIY Porters Lodge, a project run by charity Sustrans, that is helping residents reimagine their streets. During this co-design process, which has taken place over the last two years, many residents have been encouraged to see how others in the neighbourhood share their desire to build better, more attractive spaces. It has shown residents that they can be involved in making real decisions that affect change, as well as taking meaningful action to tackle anti-social behaviour, like fly-tipping and dog poo.

These temporary footprints on the streets of Dagenham highlight a walking route and encourages more children to walk, cycle and scoot to school.

Streets don’t have to be grey: that’s the motto for this community. The act of putting colour on a street gives people the permission to think about their neighbourhood differently. It opens the realms of possibility and potential, and allows people who’ve never seen anything but grey to re-imagine something brighter. A lick of paint is so simple, but it can start communities on a journey towards reclaiming their streets and public spaces.

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There are the beginnings of a quiet revolution taking shape, with communities all over the world taking to the streets to take back their neighbourhoods with paint. Take Edi Rama who, as Mayor of Tirana, the capital of Albania, instilled pride in his citizens by transforming public spaces with colourful designs. From the favelas of Rio to the streets of North Philadelphia, artists Jeroen Koolhass and Dre Urhahn have created community art by painting entire neighbourhoods with the people who live there.

At first residents will tell you that such things aren’t allowed, or that “the street can’t be blue”. But why shouldn’t it be? These are our places, our neighbourhoods, our streets. If we want communities to feel more of a sense of ownership towards where they live, taking care of it and investing in their communities, then we need to allow people to see beyond the “rules” and expectations that all streets should be grey and uninspiring. Very often, the streets in these areas have been dominated by cars for many years – isolating people rather than providing them with space to socialise, play and belong.

DIY Porters Lodge in Becontree has made the street outside the school safer, more people friendly and slowed vehicle traffic down. 

But it’s not just about the streets. The empty shop shutters of the shop parade, scarred with graffiti, are a real blight on the entrance to any neighbourhood. Graffiti immediately labels a space as down market and uncared for, bringing with it the perception that young people in the area are up to no good.

These assumptions really sink in to the consciousness and identity of a place. When people suggested brightening up the shutters on Gale Street the idea was met with nervousness. Many liked the idea, but just didn’t think it would last: an attitude endemic among communities that don’t feel public spaces belong to them.

So, to tackle this the flamingos made their return, back from their heyday in Parsloes Park to live again on a shop shutter. Beautifully created by East London artist Tom Berry, the flamingo mural gives the community’s gateway brightness, colour and a new lease of life. Increasingly this splash of colour draws people in, inspiring conversations about the area’s rich history and future. The flamingos have not been vandalised to date, two months after they were painted. Each day that goes proves another resident wrong about their perception of their community and those they’re living beside.

The impact of the change is far greater than the art work itself: it’s the fact it proves that people care. We all have the same fears and needs as human beings. We need spaces to connect and make links with others, to share with those around us and build a common understanding and experience of where we are living. The unspoken identity that weaves within a place, neighbourhood or corner is incredibly valuable. We need spaces we can feel a sense of ownership over, where, in public we can create the bonds and social ties that will knit the fabric of our communities together. 

Phillippa Banister is a street design officer at Sustrans.

Images: Sustrans.

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