Where the streets have no name

'Peri-urbanisation' (peri-what?) relates to the process of dispersal of urban growth toward the rural surroundings of cities that creates landscapes that are characterised by both urban and rural social and economic activities. That clears that up then. Whatever way you look at it there’s a panoply of phrases to describe the places we live in; and by extension the places we walk in.

HG Wells' martian in WokingRegular readers will know that I’m an enthusiastic, not to say evangelistic, urban walker who now lives deep in the heart of London’s suburbia but I find the word 'urban' a bit limiting. It’s all right as a Pope’s name – there’s been 8 of them but none since the mid 17th century – but wholly inadequate to describe the different landscapes you encounter as a walker in and around towns and cities.

Alongside the commonplace 'rural', 'suburban' and 'urban' you can find 'exburb', 'penurbia', 'commuter town', 'edgelands', 'boomburb', 'green belt' and 'rurban space' – to name but a few. There are loads of different ways to define an urban area. Wikipedia says: "an urban area is characterized by higher population density and vast human features in comparison to areas surrounding it. Urban areas may be cities, towns or conurbations". Most commentators seem to agree that about 10% of the UK is urbanised and about 80% of the population live there.

The words listed above range from the vaguely scientific sounding through the clumsy to the frankly ridiculous – 'boomburb'? Give me a break – but of them all 'edgelands' appeals to me the most.

According to Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, in their book Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, the edgelands are a zone of wild mysterious beauty. For author Robert Macfarlane: "The edgelands are the debatable space where city and countryside fray into one another. They comprise jittery, jumbled, broken ground: brownfield sites and utilities infrastructure, crackling substations and pallet depots, transit hubs and sewage farms, scrub forests and sluggish canals, allotments and retail parks, slackened regulatory frameworks and guerilla ecologies."

A blank street signFor renowned author and environmentalist, Marion Shoard, who is credited with coining the phrase: "In the built environment, the ‘edgelands’ describes the interfacial interzone between urban and rural, a mix of rubbish tips, superstores, office parks, rough-hewn farmland, gas towers, electricity pylons, wildlife and service stations." (Nice use of the double ‘inter’ there, Marion.) 

If the Ramblers hold any place in the population’s imaginations it’s probably a comfortable image of gore-tex coated, sensibly booted and map-consulting middle England plodding stoically through the countryside – healthy and harmless if you will. As Mike Parker wrote in The Wild Rover, the priorities of the modern Ramblers, “attracting more younger people, folk from disadvantaged backgrounds and ethic minorities, running many more urban walks and groups, even joining up with gay walkers’ societies – are just not the priorities of folk who live and ramble in the leafy lanes of suburban Britain. It’s pretty certain that not many of the Concerned Ramblers were to be found on the recent Ramblers walk around Banksy’s graffiti sites in Shoreditch.”

Hmmm, well, as the person who led that Banksy walk I know of at least two Concerned Ramblers who attended and as over 70 walkers were present that evening I also know that the crowd then was larger than most Concerned Ramblers meetings. Still, there is more than a kernel of truth in his point. It would be fair to say that the Ramblers haven’t wholeheartedly embraced urban walking in the past. The 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth leading to the closure of the footpath network in the countryside certainly helped to focus their minds and sparked a much needed examination of and subsequent refreshing of policy.

London skyline with the On a practical level the hugely successful Medal Routes project aims to create local routes for local people on existing paths in Scotland to encourage everyone to be more active in their daily lives and to help leave a lasting legacy from the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. Ramblers Scotland has done a marvellous job and I heartily recommend you investigate these routes next time you’re in Glasgow. What we need is even more schemes like this. Taking a different approach I hosted a well-attended fringe meeting at this year’s Ramblers General Council on urban walking and plan to lead at least one walk when the Ramblers visit Liverpool next year.

There is also the huge amount of work done by the Ramblers under its Walking for Health banner. Physical inactivity is rampant in the UK. Despite the recent high-profile successes of various cyclists, tennis players, rugby players and cricketers less than 40% of the adult population achieve the rather paltry minimum Department of Health recommended amount of at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on five or more days each week.

Of the physical activity that does happen in the population, walking is responsible for as much energy expenditure as all other sports & exercise activities put together. Walking for Health is England’s national network of health walk schemes, offering free short walks over easy terrain led by trained walk leaders. The brainchild of GP Dr William Bird, who started leading health walks from his surgery in 1996, Walking for Health is now a national programme. It supports around 600 local schemes across England that deliver a range of group walks for over 70,000 regular walkers. These are not exclusively urban-based but given so much of the population lives in urban areas, this is where they tend to take place.

Wolverhampton canalI realise that for many walkers urban walking is more about the routes out of the towns and cities into the countryside. All I’d ask is that you don’t dismiss these bits of the walk. Take a bit of time to explore and enjoy these surroundings. There is much merit to be found in the argument that the edgelands are wilder, grittier, and, yes, edgier than our manicured countryside these days.

Viewed through the prism of nature, it’s fairly safe to say relatively few species are urban specialists, most are generalists that can be found in greater numbers in other habitats such as woodland, mountains and farmland but in London, peregrine, falcons and foxes thrive while you can find grass snakes on Hampstead Heath and badgers roaming the late night streets of Kingston upon Thames. The same might be said of walkers.

Walking Class Hero's music selection:

Chris Smith

Mike Parker is downright wrong about concerned ramblers not being interested in urban walking. This concerned rambler helped plan the Green London Way, the first urban long distance footpath, back in 1987. Wanting the Ramblers to be more democratic and urban walking go together! (and if you want good graffiti art, forget Banksy- go to Grays.

julie connelly

An interesting post. I like the way you use song titles in your post. Nice touch.