If 2020 has shown that we can live our lives closer to home, how can we lock in the benefits for future generations?
Christine Boston, Sustrans Cymru
The announcement back in March this year that the UK was going into lockdown was a shock to us all and created significant challenges as we navigated a new world which largely required us to stay at home.
Whilst unexpected, it provided us with a unique opportunity to reconnect with our local environment by asking us to remain within our own community. It has shown us that it is possible to live differently with many of us making more short journeys directly from home on foot or by bike.
Many of us have experienced a more simple way of living which has allowed more time at home and with the family. I’ve seen children playing in the street because it was suddenly safe to do so and I’ve been heartened by the number of families I have seen tramping joyfully through muddy fields, exploring the local woodland or off for a ride on their bikes.
These experiences have shown the importance of a number of things that we have been calling for along with the Future Generations Commissioner such as:
20 minute neighbourhoods
For decades now, we have built homes and services around the assumption that people have a car and will drive. This not only excludes nearly a quarter of the Welsh population who don’t drive but it also has a damaging impact on our health and wellbeing. People are being forced into car dependency which has devastating consequences for our environment.
Planning in this way leads to disadvantage and isolation as even the simple things, like buying a pint of milk, become a real challenge. Importantly, the negative impacts are felt more severely by people living in more deprived communities, where people are less likely to drive and find it more difficult to access what they need to live a decent life.
Sustrans has long promoted a vision where people in towns and cities can access everything they need within a 20-minute walk. That means schools, shops, recreation and work is on the doorstep.
In a 20 minute neighbourhood, streets prioritise people with wide pavements, seating and cycle parking. Children can play in the street and can walk and cycle to school safely. In these neighbourhoods, people choose to walk and cycle because it is the easiest and most convenient choice. Where they do need to travel further, public transport is easily accessible, cheap and frequent. People see their neighbours and have a social connection to the place in which they live.
Access to greenspace
This year more than ever, we have all come to understand the value of green and blue space for good health and wellbeing. Earlier in the year, when we experienced the world changing rapidly around us, we came to understand the calming and grounding effects of access to nature and green or blue space. We want everyone to have access to outdoor space, and especially public spaces, to ensure everyone can get their dose of ‘Vitamin N’.
At Sustrans, we want to invest and improve the National Cycle Network into green and blue corridors which are traffic-free routes that connect communities to all kinds of destinations. The corridors would be used for commuting, everyday journeys or leisure and recreation, as well as providing people with a chance to connect to nature around them. We see this as being more beneficial for people and communities than building new roads.
We know that building new roads offers only a short term solution to congestion and transport issues. Investing in a network of green corridors will provide people with a safe, convenient and green alternative to relying on the private car.
For a long time, many people have been required to travel to a place of work just so they could be seen to be working. It meant our roads were congested, trains over-crowded and breathing heavily polluted air was a daily occurrence. It also placed extra pressure on working parents, exacerbated the gender pay gap and created barriers for people with disabilities who want to participate in the labour market.
Laws on flexible working have aimed to level the playing field, placing a statutory duty on employers to consider more inclusive ways of working but stubborn barriers have persisted… until this year. Suddenly, many jobs that we had previously been told couldn’t be done from home, transitioned over-night to home working ‘for the foreseeable future’. This is a game-changer for equalities and whilst we do need to consider ways to bring people together, it suddenly seems conceivable that local working hubs could provide some opportunities to reduce the need to travel every day.
All of this offers us the chance to reimagine our towns and cities, transforming them into places that encourage healthy lifestyles that allow people to travel less and more sustainably when we need to go further. The way we see it, creating better places for people creates more connected communities, a healthier environment and better opportunities for local businesses.
For decades we have built and designed our towns/cities/communities around the private car with many vulnerable groups suffering as a result. This year has made us aware of how we can live more sustainable lives and shown that it is the small things that matter the most. We hope that 2021 will bring a new focus and new opportunities to change the way we live so that we can concentrate on the things that are most important to us – health, happiness and equity.
If you want to find out more about Sustrans Cymru visit: https://www.sustrans.org.uk/about-us/our-work-in-wales