Government urged to take action now to build on walking momentum

The Ramblers want every town and city in England to have a network of green routes so that everyone can enjoy the benefits of walking and being in nature.The Ramblers will be urging Government and local authorities to expand support for walking by identifying and funding improvements that enable leisure walking trips in towns and cities.

We believe that:

  • Green spaces should be made more accessible

  • Local authorities should plan strategically for walking and greening

  • There should be better links to the countryside

We have known for many years that walkable places are healthier and happier. The body of evidence for the benefits of walking is extensive and robust, but action to create walkable towns and cities has generally been slow and piecemeal. 

Perhaps that is, until now. The coronavirus pandemic has created a new sense of urgency around the need to create high quality walking environments and get more people walking. Both central and local government are actively promoting walking as a way to alleviate pressures on public transport, to avoid traffic congestion and to help everyone maintain their physical and mental health.

According to the Department for Transport, more people than ever have been taking up walking during the pandemic. Anglia Ruskin University’s research into physical activity in lockdown revealed that 75% of the UK adult population met physical activity guidelines during the period, compared to 58-65% prior to lockdown. Research commissioned by the National Trust found that visits to parks and green spaces were up 25% in May 2020 compared to May 2018 and have nearly doubled over the last decade.

Along with experiencing the joys of walking close to home, many people have also been discovering that their local walking network is not always fit for purpose. The lockdown walking experience for many has too often been a story of overcrowded parks; narrow pavements; danger from road traffic, unnecessary barriers or poorly designed public spaces that make it difficult or unpleasant for walkers to get around.

The Ramblers have welcomed the UK government’s £250 million emergency active travel fund to enable more people to safely walk and cycle their everyday journeys, in line with physical distancing guidelines. Across England, schemes have been introduced to close city centre streets to car traffic; to widen pavements; install cycle lanes; lower speed limits and introduce low traffic neighbourhoods. 

So far, improvements have focused on making it easier for people to get to work, to shops and other facilities. This is very welcome, but it doesn’t take into account the other reasons people walk - for enjoyment, health and a daily dose of nature. The UK government and local authorities must act now to build on the current walking momentum and encourage those new to walking, to continue, by creating better routes, and greener places to walk.

The Ramblers will be urging government and local authorities to expand support for walking by identifying and funding improvements that enable leisure walking trips in towns and cities, for the enormous contribution these journeys make to improving public health, wellbeing and overall quality of life – particularly in the uncertain times we’re living in.

What are The Ramblers calling for?

Make green spaces more accessible

Two older people walking along a park path, with leaves on the ground

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.

Plan strategically for walking and greening

Two people walking in an urban setting, on a path by houses

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.

Improve and promote links to wider countryside

A person walking away, along a canal path

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.