COVID-19 has emphasised how important parks and green spaces are for exercise, relaxation, social interaction and opportunities to connect with nature. Indeed, the popularity of green spaces during the crisis has led to overcrowding and even closures where social distancing requirements couldn’t be met. It’s clear that we need more high-quality green spaces near to where people live, but of course these cannot be delivered overnight. What we can do immediately is look to improve the quality of the streets around parks – addressing pinch points, fencing, busy road crossings, providing more through routes - so that they are easier and more pleasant to access. Local authorities could, for example, look to close roads around and between parks at the weekend, to encourage longer walking trips and ease congestion at popular spaces.
Government guidance and funding should encourage local authorities to plan strategically to create both walking networks and green networks in towns and cities to get more people walking for recreation, to improve air quality, mitigate climate change and create desirable places to live and work.
More consideration needs to be given to network connectivity. Individual pedestrianisation schemes are very welcome, but it isn’t enough to focus improvements on one single street and not address barriers on streets leading to them. Network connectivity is key in encouraging more people to walk regularly rather than travel by car, so identifying and fixing linking routes is essential.
Strategic planning is also required to create green streets and spaces that encourage walking and make journeys on foot more enjoyable and beneficial. Research shows that too many people live in areas deficient in high quality, nature-rich space. In the past few decades, many towns and cities have lost natural features; front gardens have been paved over to make space for cars and trees have been removed due to dwindling council maintenance budgets. We need plans to build nature back into our towns and cities so that everyone can experience nature, every day.
During the pandemic, many people have sought out natural spaces for their health and wellbeing. Finding spaces to enjoy nature and observe social distancing in towns and cities has been challenging and without access to a car, the more open, wilder, less crowded green spaces on the urban fringe can seem impossibly out of reach. Local authorities can help everyone access open green spaces on the urban fringe by designating walking routes that lead through town and city centres, to safe crossing points along the busy roads that so often ring towns and cities, and onto the wider countryside. Local Ramblers volunteers have already installed many popular routes like these across England, and we would very much welcome the chance to work with local authorities to create new routes. Where such routes already exist, they are often under-promoted and so there is scope to expand their use through better signage, waymarking and other forms of promotion.