With spring just around the corner, John Kilner, our Walking Cities project coordinator in Leeds and Bradford, explores why greener cities are better places for walking.

Travel along Barkerend Road in Bradford on a sunny morning and you encounter the usual urban scene of parents dropping their kids off at school.

Look a little closer and just beyond the road you’ll see local park Myra Shay full of activity. There are lots of people taking a brisk walk around the circuit of the park, and a couple of older men greet each other, shake hands and swap local news. The park has trees, wilder areas, and you can hear bird song. The sound of traffic is faint and the air away from the road feels cooler and fresher.

Travel a mile east and the scene is repeated at Bradford Moor Park where the tall trees provide shade and break the monotony of the built environment.

So far so good, now time for some jargon

Ecosystem services are the free things that nature provides us with to keep us alive. These range from photosynthesis to soil formation, to provision of food and medicines and flood alleviation right through to recreation and enjoyment.

Green infrastructure is the network that provides some or all of those things. In our towns and cities this includes everything from street trees, allotments and gardens to road verges, parks and even green roofs and walls.

What’s this got to do with walking?

Put simply, the green infrastructure in our towns and cities is a major factor in making places pleasant to walk. Temperatures in urban areas can be as much as 9°c higher than in surrounding green areas. Street trees can help reduce temperatures by between 2° and 8° as well as trapping particulate pollution, helping reduce traffic noise, and slowing run-off from rainfall.

Allotments provide space to grow food and all that digging is great exercise. Parks and other urban green spaces can provide safe places for play and recreation as well as providing a valuable connection with nature that can enrich our lives and be lacking elsewhere in the city. It’s no coincidence that many people pay a premium for properties closer to parks and natural spaces.

In many cities the green infrastructure networks not only protect the natural environment but are overlaid with walking and cycling routes. Gipton in east Leeds, one of the areas where Living Streets is running the CityConnect Walking project, is right on the doorstep of the Wyke Beck valley, a seven mile chain of parks, nature reserves and open spaces.

The valley runs through some of the most deprived communities in the city, and it’s a massively valuable recreational area for local people as well as providing many of the other benefits of green infrastructure such as flood alleviation and urban cooling. Many of Living Streets project activities and events have taken place in Gipton, from a Halloween Lantern Walk to a forthcoming Red Kite Day which will celebrate the reintroduction of these magnificent birds to the Leeds area a few years ago.

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City meadows and gardens

A couple of miles away a group in Richmond Hill expressed their disappointment about the monotony of the local landscape and decided they would take matters into their own hands. They organised a seed bombing day to plant wildflower seeds on waste ground. These will not only brighten up the area but attract bees, butterflies and other insects.

In Holbeck, in south Leeds, a group has already created urban meadows that local people have highlighted as one of their favourite features of the area. These not only look better than closely cropped grass but reduce maintenance, capture more runoff and provide food for pollinating insects. The success of these areas is inspiring other community groups across the city to identify potential areas for meadows or wildlife gardens.

Green places are better for walking

It’s important that we keep in mind that greener places are almost without exception better places to walk. This is being increasingly recognised by planners and designers. Green infrastructure is multifunctional and ticks boxes for many people. Get Green infrastructure right and we go a along way to making our cities better places to walk. And the better a place is for walking, the better the place is to live.