Dan Harris, our programme coordinator in Norwich, explores how Walking Cities have created big change by focusing on the little things.

It would be easy to think creating great walkable cities is all about going large. Big statements, grand planning, landmark infrastructure.

A human being moving around a neighbourhood on foot is constantly faced with size-related challenges whether they are the distance to a destination or the drop of a kerb.

But you could argue that the smallest factor challenging any attempt to get a city taking more journeys by foot is present before any potential walker even leaves the house.

A wannabe walkable city needs one little idea to go viral - and that idea is to walk the next journey.

If you consider the population of Norwich, for everyone’s first journey of the day to be made on foot, roughly 200,000 individual little walking decisions need to happen.

Personal encouragement is a powerful tool in encouraging changes in decision making, however creating such a large amount of collective leg work requires a lot of encouragement leg work.

Small communities

In Norwich 23.8% of the workforce already walk to work, and there will also be a fair number who also walk to school, so that will make things a little easier.

So the focus needed to be on folk who aren’t currently walking, and within that group there will be people who are more likely to change their behaviour than others.

Arguably people who are in the process of undergoing big life changes will find it easier to adopt new routines than those in a comfortable partner of behaviour. And one demographic that successfully took on board the walking message in Norwich was teenagers preparing to leave home for university.

When Sprowston Youth Engagement Project formed a team for Beat the Street, I was concerned that the life of the average young person was full of far too many distractions to see the team success.

However when you focus on finding the right approach with a key group the outcomes can be astonishing. For these Sprowston teens it was all about handing the control over to them. As soon as they felt ownership of their team’s efforts they were away, resulting in them winning Beat the Street in Norwich.

beat the street in Norwich

Small challenges

When you start focusing on small groups within a city you start to realise that they often face the same challenges, and encouragingly they’re often not as challenging as you might have thought.

Over the past year Living Streets has conducted many Community Street Audits and when you group the findings together it’s interesting to see what barriers people are reporting. The older population often find little things as simple as no dropped kerbs to be a really big barrier to stepping out with confidence to walk a journey. So once you’ve found your small group within a community, find the means to understand the small issues that might offer quick solutions to encourage walking.

Here are the top six issues our street audits raised...

1. Dropped kerbs

2. Crossing the road

3. Footway condition (=3)

=Repairs (maintenance) (=3)

=Access routes and entrances (=3)

6. =Benches (=6)

=Parking (=6)

Small opportunities

The more that you understand the lives of the small groups you’re focusing on within your city, the more likely you are to find practical ways to provide that powerful tool of personal encouragement.

Though you are unlikely to have regular interactions with everyone in your city that you’re keen to encourage to start walking, there may be a group of people who do.

As we plan a forthcoming year of work in Norwich we are excited by the prospect of exploring how we can use the interaction between patient and pharmacist to deliver encouragement into walking activity.

Pharmacists are very talented professionals who see a huge number of people every week. With the right tools, resources and support there may be a route to get a personal recommendation for physical activity from an interaction that already takes place daily in every city in the UK


Little and large

As we approach the election on 7 May there will be a lot of talk about austerity and getting value for money from every penny spent.

This often seems at odds with the kind of flagship landmark projects that governments, local authorities and organisations like to associate themselves with.

The last 12 months of Walking Cities projects has however shown that resisting the urge to blow your resources on a big visible project, and to focus instead on the little things that influence the decisions of individuals can see a lasting impact on the health of communities and the success of getting a city walking.