Walk to the future

The global pandemic has underlined the importance of walking and accessing nature, raising some big questions – and unique opportunities. Mark Rowe considers the implications.

By:Mark Rowe

The global pandemic has underlined the importance of walking and accessing nature, raising some big questions – and unique opportunities. Mark Rowe considers the implications

So then, how are your local walks going? Perhaps you live deep in the countryside and have been rambling in sprightly fashion from one dale to another and back in an hour. Or maybe home is a city and you do your best to take joy from a daily visit, swerving the joggers, to the same small park. 

The crisis has shown us all how important it is to be able to enjoy the pleasures of walking outdoors. Based in Bristol during the weeks of lockdown, over time, even the muddy banks of the River Avon, which for years I passed without a glance, became impossibly, absurdly, exotic. Accessing nature from our front doorsteps and the importance of wildlife and walking for mental and physical health have been brought into sharp focus.

Locked down

As Britain’s champion of public access and walking, the Ramblers has found itself in a strange position. Moving from celebrating the exhilaration of exploring wild landscapes, walking with friends or completing the nation’s most scenic walks, to encouraging walkers to stay local, walk alone and restrict exercise to once a day. 

Honeypot sites, such as popular national parks, beaches and city parks, became the focus of much media attention. Many historic gardens, nature reserves and country parks made the difficult decision to close their gates to visitors; more still closed car parks to help limit visitor numbers as walkers were told to ‘stay local’. In urban areas, local authorities took a patchwork approach. Some closed or restricted access to public parks – a move met with much resistance from local residents, particularly those without a garden. 

The approach across nations differed, too. The Welsh Government moved early on to close paths and areas perceived to present a risk of large numbers of people gathering and spreading the virus. As a result, much of the Brecon Beacons, the Pembrokeshire Coast Path and large parts of Snowdonia were closed. 

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government emphasised the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, while asking everyone to take extra care to be responsible during Covid-19, particularly by following reasonable requests from land managers – such as avoiding paths near farm buildings. 

In England, there was a similar approach, with landowners advised that they could offer an alternative route around gardens and farmyards where routes were popular (but they could not block rights of way). 

The Ramblers promoted these calls for consideration of those working in the countryside and the impact on rural communities of an influx of visitors from further afield – reiterating governments’ messages to stay local, reduce the risk of transmission and be responsible when walking in the countryside. Even so, calls from members of the public concerned about blocked paths increased, with some reporting concerns about landowners using Covid-19 as an excuse to illegally block paths. People walking more than usual in their local area – perhaps even for the first time – came across overgrown paths, broken stiles or padlocked gates. 

Ramblers’ volunteers across nations have worked with their local communities and authorities to find practical solutions to path issues. As we slowly emerge from the current crisis and work to ensure public access to the outdoors is restored (even improved!), the work of Ramblers’ volunteers will be more critical than ever.

Activity levels step up

Walking, either as a pastime, for recreation, or for the more utilitarian purposes of getting to work, has now changed, possibly irrevocably, for better and worse. Lockdown imposed many restrictions on us, but there is evidence that it has prompted more people to experience and appreciate the joy of walking. A YouGov poll suggests that 74% of Britons took up some form of exercise during the lockdown – six in 10 women and half of men took up walking, the most popular exercise. That’s not an isolated bump. According to Sport England, activity levels were at a record high before the crisis, with 63% of adults doing at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity a week. The biggest growth? Walking for leisure: a heartening 20.3m adults in England now get active by walking for leisure.

Walking has also been a quieter experience, with background noise generated by human activity dropping by up to 50%, according to the British Geological Survey. The air we breathe has been cleaner, with nitrogen dioxide pollution dropping by 40% and particulate matter by 10%. The first few weeks of lockdown were extraordinary. Walking in a city was like walking it on Christmas Day, every day. Road travel plummeted by 73%, to levels not seen since 1955 (in urban areas, walking also dropped initially, by a similar figure) and traffic-related deaths were anecdotally said to have fallen.

Following calls from the Ramblers and others, April saw the Scottish Government commit £10 million towards urgent, ‘pop-up’ active travel infrastructure to support social distancing. The Welsh Government has offered funding for ‘high-impact imaginative measures’ that make active travel safer and more sustainable. And, on 9 May, the UK Government announced a £250 million emergency active travel fund (see Front Foot, p9). The funding is supported by some new, fast-tracked, statutory guidance which tells councils to reallocate road space for significantly increased numbers of people walking and cycling. 

Across Britain, leaders in some of our busiest towns and cities introduced measures to improve walking during lockdown. Brighton opened part of its marina to walkers and cyclists only, while Glasgow, Manchester, Leicester, Sheffield, London and others all looked at ways to change the layout of streets and town centres to make walking easier and safer. In Italy, authorities in Milan, one of the worst affected cities in Europe, plan to transform 35km/22 miles of streets over the summer, with a rapid, experimental, citywide expansion of cycling and walking space to reduce a resurgence in car use and protect residents as Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.

When all this is over, the question is: to what extent will we return to ‘normal’ and to what degree will the experience of Covid-19 have chastened us and changed how we move around by foot day to day? 

Focus on local

Lockdown has also introduced walkers to new experiences. The local patch has come into focus. The urban dawn chorus this year was on steroids, with blackbirds on countless rooftops, warblers in garden hedges, woodpeckers bolder and more visible than most of us can remember. Wildlife crept back: a herd of fallow deer grazed the lawns of a housing estate in London, while wild Kashmiri goats swapped the limestone flanks of the Great Orme for the fresh nibbling of flowers and gardens in Llandudno.

‘On my own walks, I find I’m noticing wildlife more and discovering pockets of local green space I didn’t know existed,’ says Gemma Cantelo, head of policy and advocacy at the Ramblers. ‘We know that easy access to green space not only makes us healthier and happier – it also improves our sense of community and encourages us to take positive action to protect the environment. That’s worth harnessing in the long term.’ 

According to research conducted by CPRE, the countryside charity, one in three of us report visiting green spaces more since lockdown began. Over half of us report appreciating these local green spaces more (53%) and being more aware of their importance for our mental health and wellbeing (57%) and The Wildlife Trusts reported a 2,000% increase in visits to their webcams. So it seems we’re using all the tools we can to connect with nature.

A new normal?

There are also echoes of the original inequalities of access that drove the creation of the Ramblers. The crisis has highlighted the disparity between those who have easy local access to nature (in gardens or close by) and those who don’t. 

‘We are not experiencing lockdown equally,’ says Gemma. For people without a garden or easy access to local green space, it’s particularly tough. ‘This isn’t new – we know poor access to green space exacerbates health inequalities. But the current crisis brings the personal cost of that into stark relief. 

‘That’s why we’re urging our national governments to see recovery from this crisis as an opportunity to boost walking and improve our access to the outdoors in the long term.’