Making cities pedestrian-friendly
4 October 2012
By Suzy Robinson
At a time when obesity-related conditions are an ever-growing reality and work-days lost through depression and stress take an increasing toll on Britain's economy, new plans are being launched to encourage greater physical activity. But are they effective? Research co-funded by the ESRC has measured the 'walkability' of pedestrian-friendly public spaces in East Belfast to explore whether they work as intended.
Alarming statistics show that by 2050, an estimated 60 per cent of men and 50 per cent of women in the UK could be clinically obese, running up a staggering £49.9bn bill for society and business (DBIS 2007). Coronary heart disease, raised cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, osteoporosis and slower recovery after illness are all affected by our level of physical activity.
Along with the recent White Paper Healthy lives, healthy people and the Obesity Prevention Framework in Northern Ireland, government and agencies are recognising that policy must be targeted both at the individual and also at a broader socio-economic level - implementing local and environmental changes in order to see a real impact.
In 2007, East Belfast Partnership's Connswater Community Greenway (CCG) was awarded a large grant by the Big Lottery, in the region of £40 million. The aim has been to connect 379 acres of public open space, building 43 new bridges and implementing 19km of cycle and walkways in a major environmental improvement and rejuvenation project. The impact is hoped to affect 40,000 local people, giving them wider opportunities for exercise and encouraging an all-round healthier life.
The PARC study (Physical Activity in Connswater), led by Professor Frank Kee from Queen’s University, Belfast, and funded through the ESRC-supported National Prevention Research Initiative, looks at how successful CCG has been in improving the health of the local population.
One element of the PARC study has been to measure the influence that the features of the built environment may have on the physical activity of local residents. This contributes to our understanding of 'walkability' – how the built environment can encourage walking. This can be done by making areas more pedestrian-friendly, safer, and connecting people throughout a local area while at the same time making their journey manageable and visually stimulating. In contrast to the US and Australia, where research has developed models where the urban structure consists mainly of low-density suburbs and grid-pattern city centres, CCG has reformulated this research from a European perspective.
In order to measure walkability, the PARC study mapped all the footpaths in the area around the Greenway to create a virtual network of how pedestrians move through the area and to see how this changes once the Greenway is open. This 'Real Walkability Network' has proved to be a useful tool for understanding a wide range of issues related to pedestrian activity in East Belfast, including travel to school, access to open space or even mapping the areas served by leisure centres or public transport stops. sports facilities, public transport and local parks.
The KESUE research project (Knowledge Exchange, Spatial Analysis and Healthy Urban Environments) aims to extend the network across the whole of Belfast as well as creating a new network in Derry. Leader of the project, Dr Geraint Ellis at Queen’s University Belfast, noted: "For the last 30 years we have tended to view transport and access primarily through the eyes of car users. Indeed, pedestrian routes through our cities are not routinely mapped nor analysed as part of standard transport modelling. Establishing the footpath networks for Belfast and Derry is the first step to making pedestrian more visible to policymakers, and will provide a key step in analysing walkability in a European context."