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Who owns the public right of way?

A large body of recent research demonstrates the role of regular visitation and contact with nature on individual and community well-being. The study, which focuses on the greenness of public green spaces and public areas, also points to significant inequalities in the social distribution of access to nature. But an important piece of the puzzle has been missing from the discussion so far: the role of path networks.

This research opens new frontiers in our understanding of critical infrastructure for neighborhood-level path provision and natural access. We start from the basics, focusing on Public Rights of Way (PRoW) and open land, which together represent the fundamental mechanisms for the legal protection of walking in the natural environment in England and Wales. We analyze the provision of this critical infrastructure available within every postcode in England and Wales and provide here the main results and intersections with other indicators of socioeconomic and demographic status and well-being.

We start to answer this question NumberWho holds rights of way in England and Wales today? In the simplest terms, the answer is old, wealthy, healthy, and white. We demonstrate that significant inequalities in provision exist, which impact on and fragment the everyday community lives and experiences of interactions with nature of different groups across England and Wales. Additionally, we highlight how failures in infrastructure to document, protect, plan and expand nature access lead to significant losses of potential nature reserves for the poorest and most hindered communities. Our findings include:

Provision of PRoW is grossly unequal and lacking in communities that need it most.

  • Residents in the most deprived areas of England and Wales receive 80% more local PRoW provision than residents in the least deprived areas.
  • Regions with the lowest upgrade demand categories have median PRoW supply levels that are 30% higher than those with the greatest need.
  • Looking at the racial divide, the gap widens even further, with majority-white areas having 144% more local PRoW than the most racially diverse areas.
  • Each percentage point increase in an area’s white population is associated with (i.e. correlated with) an additional 37m of PRoW within an 800m radius (a 10 minute walk) of the postcode.
  • The supply of PRoW is also lowest in places with the worst health outcomes (as shown by heart attack rates).

We’re building walking infrastructure and natural experiences in people’s lives.

  • Neighborhoods dominated by housing built in the mid-20th century generally have the highest local PRoW supply, with housing built between 1965 and 1972 having approximately 100% more PRoW within an 800 m radius than developments built before 1940 or after 2000. 40%.
  • There is a significant decline in PRoW supply between developments led in the 1990s and those post-2000 (-19%).
  • Furthermore, if PRoW had been fully recorded and protected over the past 80 years, communities across England and Wales would have had an average of 38% more local PRoW than they do now.
  • As a result of these losses, the most deprived communities in England and Wales have lost the largest proportion of PRoW, and if all PRoW had been accurately registered in legal records during the second half of the 20th century, the number of local PRoW would have increased by approximately 63% today.

Action is needed to correct these inequities and reverse the erosion of this core component of our nation’s critical infrastructure.

  1. Legally documenting the infrastructure we can have, protecting and restoring historic rights of way for generations to come.
  2. Protecting the infrastructure we have from loss, congestion or falling into disrepair due to poorly planned development.
  3. Expand infrastructure and target it where we need it most, generating significant investment in new roads and open land in communities currently cut off from nature.

Image source: Unsplash/Fas Khan

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