People walking

 

The focus of our National Walking Summit in Manchester on 6 March was whether walking can be considered a "miracle cure" for our public health crisis. By the end that wasn't the only big question we had wrestled with.

Now that he's calmed down a bit, Matt, our engagement coordinator, has drawn together a few takeaway points from our National Walking Summit.

Matt Cunningham

Every year I leave our Walking Summit with my head spinning from the energy and invention on display. 

I love the science bits and references, and those confident enough in their audience to be able to share these unashamedly and to communicate them in ways that we can all grasp - a role Professor Shane O'Mara filled with style this year.

I also love the determination. The folks who have fought and won, or are even barely scraped a draw but are working out how to win the replay.

But I guess most of all I love the praxis, where people put what they have learned - from personal experience or practical application around the world - into action.

So how do we do it? How do we increase investment, and get more people walking, so that we can all truly share the benefits to our health, our environment and our wellbeing?

Let's be honest: this was always going to take more than one day of talking. However, across the day a number of principles emerged repeatedly that seemed to shine a path.

So, after talking to my colleagues, here are our six take-away points from our 2020 National Walking Summit.

 

More about our 2020 National Walking Summit

1. We need to widen our audience

 

I am not listing these in any order, but this one came up a lot - how do we reach as wide a cross-section of society as possible?

From speakers and delegates there was near consensus that we are often just preaching to the choir at events, well, like our Summit - and this is not going to be good enough to achieve all we envisage.

An important part of this is language - Chris Boardman talked about how changing the tone from one of shaming, for instance, car drivers to one of offering something positive and useful to people is a big start.

The principle of "transport poverty" was raised - where people are forced to spend a large proportion of their income on travel; as Cardiff councillor Caro Wild said, "active travel is an equality issue". 

Lee Waters, Wales' Active Travel Commissioner, was incendiary on this matter, and worded it perfectly bluntly: "How do we move away from the 'it's a lovely thing to do' message?" We need to introduce more grit into this debate and a bit less middle class namby-pambyism."

Making active travel relevant to people's experience and solving their needs means listening to people, not just parachuting our ideas in or prescribing. Sarah Storey talked about the success of projects with Muslim women and disabled people in South Yorkshire, while Lee Craigie emphasised the importance of allowing children's voices to be heard.

In short: we need to reach out further. 

2. We need to remember: communities are often the real experts

 

Not a new one, but always worth repeating.

Our lightning presentations were powerful displays of the breadth of this.

  • Croydon Living Streets' local activism to improve a neglected public space.
  • Action Vision Zero's groundbreaking thought leadership on road safety.
  • The Loiterers' Resistance Movement's reclamation not just of "the streets" but of the whole way of engaging with our public realm. 
  • The Streets For Health project in Cardiff built around the input and experience of local residents.

In practice community-led approaches can lay the ground for addressing the issue of outreach outlined in point 1 as well.

Pauline Johnston from Levenshulme in Manchester earned the 2020 Charles Maher Award for the project she helped lead to reduce traffic and create more walkable streets - all of which was based on consultation with a large proportion of Levenshulme's diverse community.

 

3. We have to keep it strategic


This is something we can honestly say we are getting better at: basically, making sure that walking is woven in when we are talking about not just transport, but health and environment.

As Susan Claris, one of our trustees reminded the room after they had just listened to our panel of six active travel commissioners from all over the UK, that there are people with this job description at all reflects some serious progress.

We heard Chris Boardman insisting on walking being part of his brief ("it's more important, more accessible than cycling, and has potential for greater change") and Lee Waters in Wales saying "We are trying to bake in active travel into the way transport is done." We also hear about a public health professional who sits part-time in Cardiff's transport team.

And yet we learn from Walk21's Jim Walker that we in the UK are playing catch-up. Many countries are working on national walking strategies - and they are more ambitious than in the UK, and with longer scope.

And whisper it, but Walker also added that, while cycling is walking's close friend, "our best friend ought to be public transport" - which brings us nicely to our next point.

 

4. We need to frame walking as a public transport issue


"Walking and public transport is the way to change cities." Jim Walker from Walk 21.

This was a connection being made all day long: if we want to get people out of their cars and walking, we need to tackle not just walkability but connectivity.

Mayor Burnham remarked on how it is cheaper for four young people to share an Uber for some journeys in Manchester than it is to travel by bus or tram because of high fares - echoing the point about "transport poverty".

There needs to be "major reform of public transport if we are going to break our car dependency," he said to much applause.

And it must follow that improved public transport - in terms of reliability as well as affordability - is matched by improvements to the walking infrastructure to and from bus stops and stations - something we have been working on in Scotland, of course.

 

5. We need to put accessibility first


"Everything we do in our active travel programme, we are asking: 'Is it accessible for everybody?'" Dame Sarah Storey

Going for a walk is great for our health, but it's no good if our pavements are blocked, or cracked, or are only designed around some people's needs.

Ensuring our streets are accessible to all is absolutely vital to ensuring that we convert walking into the public health boost we all want, and that it has the potential to be. Throughout the day we heard decision-makers and campaigners address this - and agree we must do better.

We also heard people expand on the principle of accessibility so that it encompasses not just older adults and disabled people as is usually assumed, but parents with buggies and, as Lee Craigie emphasised, young children themselves.

As Andy Burnham put it, it's about "your average 12 year old, the mum with the double buggy, the person using a mobility scooter."

 

 

6. We need to talk about joy more


Given that a large part of his presentation was about how walking makes us feel, it was not surprising that it was Shane O'Mara who challenged us to talk about enjoyment more.

Planning documents talk a lot about economics, he said, but not much about enjoyment. And yet the pleasure of going for a walk is such an important string in our bow, and a gateway to all sorts of health benefits.

(This was a timely issue for us. May is National Walking Month, and this year we will be focusing on how walking makes us feel - physically and emotionally. Watch this space.)

O'Mara called on us to look to Italian towns and cities for design principles that can make walking a more pleasant way of getting around.

As Jim Walker continued, we should not just be asking to increase the numbers of people walking - we have to make it pleasant as well; quantity AND quality.

Too often our streets make us scream, he said. They should just make us relaxed.

 

We are making ground. We are reclaiming our streets, and we are seeing walking taken more seriously.

While there is so much more to do, we have the wind at our backs. Let's do this.

 

Highlights from our 2020 National Walking Summit