Lucky enough to live in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, James Parker FRSA is sympathetic to those people escaping to the countryside for exercise. He argues for creating a national strategy to give urban dwellers access to fresh air, greenery and open spaces.
I live in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), the south Shropshire Hills. During lockdown, it has been my good fortune every morning to be able to climb 900 feet up my local hill with my dog Teigan, to a plateau of some 30 square miles of open access moorland. This provided us our one daily allowance of exercise in the first eight weeks of the enforced isolation. With the relaxation of the rules we have had a choice of several healthy walking options each day.
I am nearer 70 than 69 so this opportunity has been invaluable for both my physical and mental health. On a fine day we can usually pick out the tower blocks of the Wolverhampton conurbation some 40 miles away to the east. This highlights a stark divide in our society; the people living in those buildings have not been in a position to get out into open green spaces and the fresh air in the way that I have been able to.
During the initial quarantine period anyone caught driving to beauty spots or even the nearest green fields have either been challenged by the police or shamed in the media for breaking the rules. Local councils have in many cases exacerbated the problem by closing parks in a fit of overzealous application of what, as Peter Biro FRSA argued recently, were generally agreed but very undemocratic regulations. Sometimes local authorities have legitimate and understandable fears about litigation and costs arising from their position in the political hierarchy, which in such circumstances does not help. This however has reinforced the ‘jobsworth’ mentality at some authorities and led to an ill-considered and panicked response to enforcing lockdown without calm consideration of the wider ramifications.
As someone who lived and worked in the south east and London for many years and also in the northern city of Sheffield, I am well aware of the lack of adequate green spaces for city dwellers. The disappearance of parks and the destruction of trees (of which Sheffield is a terrible example) have only made matters worse. Many urban housing estates have no accessible green space effectively trapping whole families indoors for weeks in mostly small or modest apartments. Recent research, published in the Lancet Planetary Health journal, shows that the poorest neighbourhoods would gain most from more open green spaces for exercise and that planting more trees in cities could prevent hundreds of premature deaths, reduce health inequities and save millions in health care costs.
I started to write this in my sunny garden with a view to the hills and the sound of birdcall. It was the bank holiday weekend and the local car parks were overwhelmed with visitors, the roads into the area and the nearby town streets were clogged with vehicles. There were signs up at every road junction requesting people not to come to the area. However, my sympathies are with the visitors. They had been cooped up for too long and denied access to healthy outdoor spaces, while the elite blatantly flout the spirit if not the letter of the law. As far as I was concerned, they were welcome to share our good fortune. The vast majority obeyed social distancing, were polite on the paths and trackways to the top of the hills and at the viewing points.
The Covid-19 virus is not going to disappear anytime soon. Being prepared for further difficulties will be the ‘new normal’ for some time to come, especially if a vaccine is not quickly identified. In the meantime, getting out into the fresh air and sunshine is one of the best ways to avoid catching the infection. According to the Kings Fund, access to green space has been linked to wider benefits including reduced levels of obesity, reductions in a number of long-term conditions such as heart disease, cancer, and musculoskeletal conditions. The opportunity to access both should be every person’s right. There needs to be a new approach therefore in cities and towns to outdoor exercise.
Natural corridors of greenery
I describe this as a Green Corridors Initiative (GCI) and should be mandatory alongside social distancing regulations. In the conservation world wildlife corridors are regarded as essential if healthy populations of animal and bird species are to thrive and grow. The GCI should work on the same principles; linking communities through natural corridors of greenery. These could be tree-lined avenues in towns and cities making a network of paths and cycle lanes connecting with parks and other open spaces.
One of the benefits of the worldwide lockdown has been the improvement in air quality as cars in particular have been off the roads. With more people working from home and continuing to do so in the future, and the encouragement to walk or cycle where feasible, it should be possible to convert or close individual roads across urban areas creating a new green network. Instead of tarmac, grass avenues should be created lined with trees (for example, Plane trees thrive in town environments) forming a healthy grid of access. This would reduce pollution still further, and enable people, recently trapped in their multi-storey residences, to get out and escape the claustrophobia of small flats (and the often-concomitant mental health issues associated with this kind of confinement) and to enjoy the benefits of exercise and open spaces. Exercising close to their homes and without breaking any rules this would protect their health in the event of a second spike in the virus and would help improve future health (for example, reducing the incidence of chronic obesity, a risk factor with Covid-19).
These urban walkways should in turn be linked to a much wider network of paths and routes stretching out to and across the countryside. There should now be a concerted effort to pressurise legislators to create a full open access law for England to match that in Scotland. The plan to expunge from the record any footpath not identified as a public right of way by 2026 should be scrapped as a matter of urgency. Every effort should be made to restore ‘lost’ rights of way and this should be a permanent and ongoing process. The law as it currently stands is a free licence for narrow focused landowners to deny the majority of citizens’ access to the countryside. The craven behaviour of Natural England caving in to coastal landowners and forcing diversions on the National Coast Path is yet another recent example of the wrong course of action.
The top 50 landowners currently control over seven million acres – or 12% of Britain’s landmass – most of which is inaccessible as things stand. This small group should not be allowed to dictate who can go where and even more so now that we have seen the impact of this viral emergency. Farmers are pleading with the government for subsidies now that we have left the European Union (an exit the majority of farmers voted for) and protection from threatened US imports of foodstuffs if we secure a trade deal with the US. In return for national support, the farming community needs to open up their lands so that the very people they rely on to eat their produce can see where it comes from and benefit from sharing these landscapes. The farming community often claim to be the guardian of Britain’s countryside; now is the time for that guardianship to be put to good use rather than as an excuse to deny access.
I appeal to members of the RSA to support a GCI and ask if there are members out there with vastly more skills, knowledge and experience of running such a project to take this on. This work speaks to the RSA’s work on the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, its broader focus on inequality and its focus in recent weeks on Building Bridges to the Future.
I believe it is a social necessity. Now is the time to give everyone their birthright of free healthy access to fresh air, greenery and open spaces. If there is one thing this pandemic has shown it is that community is a positive and very successful concept. Let’s give that community the oxygen they deserve, for this and future generations.
James has over 30 years experience of working in the food industry and has worked in advertising and the NHS. For seven years he co-ran a business providing enterprise education services to schools, colleges and universities. Now retired, James volunteers for heritage charities and is doing a Masters Degree course in Military History.
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