Taking a step towards healthier communities
The new year has begun with more worrying reports about increasing levels of obesity and related health concerns. The UK is now among the most obese nations in the world – one in four of the country’s adults are obese while levels of childhood obesity continue to rise at an alarming rate.
Living Streets’ award-winning Fitter for Walking initiative is taking steps in the right direction however – encouraging all ages to discover the great outdoors and become more physically active.
In this guest blog, Jayne Phenton touches on some of the project’s milestones since being awarded BIG funding in 2008. As we discover, small changes to local communities can have a widely felt, lasting impact on people’s health and well-being.
Research recently published in The Lancet showed that physical inactivity is the fourth greatest health risk globally, only rivalled by smoking in Britain.
In the UK, the majority of us are not as physically active as we should be – nearly two thirds don’t get the recommended 150 minutes a week, putting us at risk of a range of chronic conditions including coronary heart disease, England’s biggest killer.
Walking is the cheapest, most accessible exercise option so why aren’t we simply slipping on our shoes and burning some energy on the streets?
The recently published NICE Guidance on Walking and Cycling recognises the importance of investing in the public realm citing the Netherlands and Denmark as role models with high levels of walking and cycling, lower car usage, less pollution and a healthier population.
In 2008, Living Streets launched Fitter For Walking with £1.7 million from the Big Lottery Fund and £470k match funding from local authority partners. Over the next four years, the charity worked with 150 communities in England, chosen for their high levels of obesity and low levels of physical activity in economically deprived areas.
The project aimed to promote walking and improve the walkability of environments. At the Marks Gate Estate residents could only access their local shopping centre and train station on foot via a notoriously unwelcoming subway.
Living Streets worked with Barking and Dagenham Council to create a ‘walking corridor’ by resurfacing and painting the subway, installing dropped kerbs, removing street clutter and improving signage. Local community groups planted bulbs and shrubs and held events to promote walking.
“People came together to make a difference to this hostile environment, which allowed them to feel a sense of ownership over the space. People’s attitude and perception really changed,” says Living Streets’ Head of Projects, Jack Skillen.
Evaluation surveys found not only more people walking, but 40% of people thought it felt safer and 43% thought it more pleasant to walk around.
The success of the Fitter for Walking project has been recognised twice this year, for ‘Excellence in Walking and Public Realm’ at the National Transport Awards 2012 and the Big Society Award from the National Charity Awards. But perhaps the most important commendation comes from the people who made their neighbourhoods safer, more attractive places, simply by being more active on their streets.
As one resident from the Marks Gate Estate describes it: “I think it’s got new members of the community involved and raised awareness of a lot of things that need to be sorted out in the area. The subway has been improved, lots of things have improved.”
Jayne Phenton is Media Coordinator at Living Streets