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Routes to Nature | New Economics Foundation

Public awareness of the critical role played by infrastructure connecting people, places and nature has grown rapidly in recent years. In our last report, we took a closer look at how the Public Rights of Way (PRoW) network, a key component of natural infrastructure, is distributed across communities and socio-economic groups in England and Wales. We highlight that there are serious inequalities in the provision of PRoW in England and Wales, with low-income and ethnically diverse communities having less access to PRoW. In this report, we explore further what this inequality means for health and wellbeing outcomes in England and Wales, and how government policy solutions can close the gap.

Since PRoW only represents the broader Number“Pedestrian networks”, which also include footpaths and other paths provided on a permitted (i.e. non-statutory) basis, as well as open land and parks, present challenges in isolating the impact of PRoW’s presence. Here, we use logistic regression models to establish the statistical relationship between PRoW supply and green space visits using active travel modes (walking, cycling and mobility aids) reported in national surveys. We show that the presence (or lack thereof) of PRoW is strongly statistically associated with physical activity in green spaces, after controlling for other key influences on green space visitation such as dog ownership, income level and age. We further emphasize that the greenness of the walking route itself and the surrounding area is also associated with greater physical activity in nature. Given the known benefits of natural physical activity for health and well-being, this suggests that inequalities in PRoW provision in England and Wales may lead to inequalities in social outcomes.

Having strengthened the evidence for this link, we next focus on how our library of PRoW provisions and preferred characteristics of pathways can be used to support the objectives of government interventions aimed at improving social outcomes derived from nature. We are particularly highlighting communities across England and Wales who are deprived of access to PRoW and/or access to green walking experiences. These include deeply urban communities (mainly in the north) as well as some rural communities (particularly on the east coast of England). While these communities are good areas to focus policy activity and funding, expanding the benefits of natural physical activity is a complex issue and is always highly context-specific.

To build a data-led understanding of the relationships between people and the paths they take, we looked more deeply into four case study areas: South East Wales, West and South Yorkshire, Devon and Dorset County and West Midlands Combined Authority (CA). Through these case studies, and based on further data on local physical activity from the Strava Metro dataset, we demonstrate the characteristics of paths and PRoW that appear to encourage physical activity. We particularly emphasize the importance of cross-country, linear green corridors that connect inner cities to the rural periphery, and often run alongside waterways, for people’s physical activity in nature. We emphasize that PRoWs are often the public’s favorite form of routing (where available), seemingly because they are more likely to possess some or all of these features. Despite this, there is still a severe lack of PRoW in some key areas of England and Wales. We focus on the case of California’s West Midlands, a region that often lacks PRoW and, when it does exist, is generally fragmented and less green than some of the other urban case studies we highlight.

As demonstrated by PRoW, insufficient provision of pathways is clearly a major barrier to access to nature-based physical activity in communities in deprived areas of England and Wales.We show that the value of this loss can be expressed in monetary terms, using the given NumberWell-being assessment indicators. While attempts to price social and natural goods should be viewed with caution, the levels of value we illustrate further strengthen the case for aggressive policy intervention.

We have put forward our proposed Green Walk Fund. The fund aims to provide local areas with resources to equalize and expand access to nature through the provision of walking infrastructure. Where PRoW networks can be expanded, priority should be given to supporting people’s ability to access the natural environment closer to home. However, where PRoW expansion may not always be feasible, particularly in deep urban communities where physical (i.e., availability of space), social, and political barriers exist, future improvements to walking networks should include preferred characteristics of paths, as identified of the factors that drive physical activity in nature.

We are calling for £650 million of annual funding (£12 per person) for the devolved countries, with equivalent additional Barnet consequences, targeting several key policy objectives, including:

  • Provides place-based understanding and intervention resources for engaging with nature. Funding from central government to every local authority in the country is sufficient to pay for two rights-of-way officers per local authority, or two rights-of-way officers per 100,000 people, whichever is higher.
  • Equal access. Central Government allocates funding based on need, with the aim of providing equal access to nature in areas currently underserved by existing walking networks. We are calling for an investment fund of £400m a year, enough to build and maintain 2km of new footpaths, develop green walking routes for urban communities and bring aged roads back into use. NumberThere are 100 places (i.e. a total of 200 kilometers) of “difficult to build areas” every year.
  • Access is being restored. Central Government funding is allocated to local authorities on a competitive basis on application, seeking support to bring lost historic and obstructed roads back into use, or to replace lost roads in locations of strategic value.We are calling for £100m of annual investment funding, enough to build and maintain 400km of new PRoWs, or urban greenways, and enough to improve existing networks NumberEasy to build ‘site every year.

Image source: Unsplash/Matthew Waring

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