Talk of the Town

A new vision for greener, accessible, walker-friendly towns and cities could revolutionise urban life.

Words by Matthew Jones, illustration by Kerry Hyndman

Today, over 80% of people in the UK live in urban areas, while more than half (54%) the total population lives in one of the country’s 64 largest towns and cities. We are also an increasingly sedentary society – physical inactivity is responsible for one in six deaths. Experts agree that walking is one of the most effective ways to combat such inactivity. Chief Medical Officers have said that national targets can only be achieved if people incorporate activity – walking in particular – into their daily lives.

Urban walking

In addition to health benefits, walking has numerous social benefits for urban populations. Improving the ‘walkability’ of towns and cities results in surroundings that facilitate social interaction, relaxation and enjoyment. Then there’s the positive economic impact: case studies have shown that improvements to public spaces can boost footfall and trading by up to 40%.

Moreover, investing in walking and cycling routes provides a competitive return compared with other transport projects. Applying the government’s own assessment methods of infrastructure projects gives benefit-to-cost ratios of 20:1, considerably higher than rail and road schemes, which typically have ratios of just 3:1. Getting more people out walking would bring significant health benefits, as well as social and economic benefits for communities. But to increase rates of walking in Britain’s urban spaces – our streets, public parks, urban woodland and nature areas, our paths and green corridors, rivers and canals – they should all be safe, pleasant and easy to use.

Accordingly, the Ramblers’ new urban spaces policy identifies three key areas of focus: parks and urban green space; active travel; and the accessibility of public spaces. ‘For too long, cities have been designed to facilitate car use, with predictable consequences for our health and wellbeing. We want to help create greener, walkable and more accessible cities that prioritise the needs of people,’ explains Kate Conto, senior policy officer for the Ramblers.

Greener cities

Urban green space includes public parks and gardens, which are a vital community resource. In England, they are the means by which most people connect with nature, with 778 million visits a year, according to government statistics. Two-thirds of visits to local parks and other green spaces are made on foot, and additional research shows that those who live within 500m of accessible green space are 24% more likely to meet recommended levels of physical activity. Many Ramblers group walks – health walks in particular – take place in parks because they provide a safe, traffic-free, interesting and accessible environment.

However, green space also encompasses ‘green corridors’ and disused infrastructure, such as railway lines, which often have the potential to be improved for public use. One example is the Cinder Track, a 23-mile walking and cycling route that connects the Yorkshire towns of Scarborough and Whitby. The line forms part of the National Cycle Network, which generated more than £1 billion of economic benefit in 2013, according to a Sustrans report.

Such spaces not only present obvious opportunities for physical activity, but they also encourage social interaction and community cohesion, support active travel, connect people with nature, promote local economic growth, improve air quality and enhance biodiversity.

Active travel

The key to encouraging people to walk in towns and cities is a high-quality urban environment. This means creating well-connected pedestrian routes and green spaces that make it easy to reach shops, libraries, schools and transport hubs. In turn, that will drive ‘active travel’ – which means walking as a means of transport rather than solely as a leisure activity.

Incorporating walking into everyday life in this way would make a vast contribution to public health. It is estimated that switching to active travel for short car journeys in urban England and Wales could save the NHS £17 billion over a 20-year period.

Increasing rates of walking in urban areas would also mean reduced congestion, improved air quality and lower carbon emissions. The death toll from air pollution in the UK is estimated to be around 40,000 people annually, while earlier this year London breached its annual air pollution limit on levels of toxic nitrogen dioxide in just five days. Walkable cities would also create safer, more pleasant streets, since walking is associated with increased social interaction and other community benefits.

‘Walkable cities would create safer, more pleasant streets and increase social interaction’

Accessible cities

Streets and public spaces are the main conduit for moving around an urban area; but they are also places where people meet and gather, where we shop and conduct business, and explore the surrounding environment. As such they should be open and welcoming, without physical obstructions or unreasonable rules and conditions on access. Ramblers believes that developing, maintaining and promoting street architecture and public spaces is vital to improve the accessibility of our towns and cities, ensuring that urban public spaces and streets contribute to a sense of community, safety and place. In turn, this will encourage people to walk both within the space and through it.

The three policy strands were developed to help realise Ramblers’ vision to get more people walking and thereby improve public health, as well as the ambition to safeguard urban green spaces. Recent years have seen significant reductions in funding for public parks allied with increasing privatisation of public spaces. A Heritage Lottery Fund report revealed that 92% of park managers have reported budget cuts over the past three years, while 50% of local authorities have sold or transferred the management of a park or green space in the same period.

However, there is increasing support from government for walking as a means of active travel. This year, the Department for Transport will publish its Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy, which will include plans for investing in local cycling and walking routes and infrastructure. The government’s forthcoming 25-year plan for the environment is also expected to focus on improving access to green space in and around urban centres.

Other bodies are currently gathering a wealth of data on the state of our towns and cities. A digital map produced by mapping software specialist Esri UK showed that Edinburgh and Glasgow have more green space than any of the UK’s other 10 most-populated cities, with 49.2% and 32% of green space respectively – ahead of Bristol (29%), Birmingham (24.6%) and Greater London (23%). Liverpool was shown to have the least, with just under a sixth of its land classified as green space.

Similarly, Ordnance Survey is collaborating with the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy to produce maps of accessible urban green space in England and Wales, which are expected to be published this year. Scotland already has a green space map, which was compiled in 2011 from data provided by all 32 Scottish councils. It identified the location, extent and type of green space across all of Scotland’s towns and cities with a population of 3,000 or more. Work is currently underway on an open data version for public use and a ‘premium’ version to support work on green space planning, management, policy and research.

Another project has attempted to pinpoint all privately owned public spaces (POPS) in Britain, amid concerns over the proliferation of privatised public zones in urban regeneration projects. Examples include Granary Square at King’s Cross in London, as well as Brindleyplace in Birmingham and Liverpool ONE in the city centre. Between 2010 and 2015, councils sold land and property worth £10.6 billion. While regeneration may be welcome, there are concerns that access rights in many new developments are often constrained, particularly when spaces are gated or patrolled by private security firms. Even when there are no limits on use, developments can feel unwelcoming and sterile.

Ramblers is calling for all public spaces that come under private ownership or management to remain accessible. It also asks local authorities to publish guidelines on the use of all public spaces, with any conditions imposed on such use to be democratically and transparently agreed byelaws. This comes in response to the creation of Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs), a geographically defined version of ASBOs that were introduced in 2014. These orders can be summarily decreed by local authorities. PSPOs were designed to curtail problems with aggressive begging or alcohol consumption, but by 2016, 12 councils had issued bans on loitering or congregating in groups, and 11 closed alleyways to pedestrians through the use of gates. Burnley Borough Council alone introduced 14 gating orders, while Cardiff Council issued six.

Regional renewal

We’re set for a key year in urban walking. This May, for the first time, voting will take place for directly elected regional mayors in six metropolitan areas. They will lead combined authorities set up by groups of local councils, as part of devolution deals giving additional powers and funding. The election of Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London in May 2016 was a similarly important moment for Britain’s biggest city. The opportunity was seized by local Ramblers behind the Love London, Walk London campaign, who used the mayoral elections as a platform to make three key asks of the incoming mayor. These were to employ a walking ambassador to promote London as a world-class walking city for all; to champion the Thames Path and other routes to ensure they remain safe and open for all Londoners to walk; and to ensure equality of access to parks and green spaces.

The first aim has already been realised. Will Norman was announced as London’s Walking and Cycling Commissioner in December 2016. He will work closely with the Deputy Mayor for Transport, Val Shawcross – with whom Ramblers have already met. On his appointment, Norman talked of his ambition to ‘give walking the focus it truly deserves’, saying that too often its importance has been ‘underplayed’. Ramblers across London are now asking the commissioner to drive improvements for walking across London, joining up policy across areas such as transport, health, planning and the environment – offering a potential template for other cities.

Summarising the policy, Nicky Philpott, director of advocacy and engagement at the Ramblers, says: ‘Over time, the Ramblers wants to do more to help make towns and cities great places to walk, subsequently providing huge benefits for health, economies and communities.’ But to do this, it is important to build a better picture of what is happening to urban walking environments across Britain. ‘As such, we’d like to encourage members to tell us about what is happening in local areas,’ she adds. ‘That applies to areas such as public parks, private developments and the creation of new green space; but also new urban walking routes and initiatives.’

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