Earlier this year Living Streets launched the State of Our Streets Awards. The competition invited the public to nominate the best and worst examples of street maintenance in the UK. Broken, dangerous pavements, pathways made inaccessible by rubbish and street clutter were cited as blots on the urban landscape.
Ruth Billingham, Living Streets Supporter Coordinator, who managed the awards says, ‘People care passionately about their environment and want safe, well-maintained and attractive streets. In a survey, 39% of people said they would walk more in their local area if their streets were better , so the imperative for local authorities to respond is very clear.’
There were also a substantial number of nominations for the best of Britain’s streets and common to most of the entries was an element of greenery. Recreation areas, trees and well-maintained verges are highly valued and people’s efforts to preserve some nature in the urban environment generated some surprising benefits.
Residents in south London transformed their street by cultivating their house frontages and encouraging plants to compete with the concrete. The result was not just a more aesthetically pleasing street, but the project brought neighbours together and fostered a community spirit.
‘We have changed this street from a repository for last night’s kebabs, sofas and general fly tipping into an RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) Award winning street. We are no longer [just] neighbours, but great buddies into the bargain. Clever old plants brought all of us folks together!’
Since the days of Octavia Hill, social reformers and environmentalists have made the case for openly accessible green areas in post-industrial Britain’s towns and cities. For Hill, gardens and open spaces were a necessity for people’s health and current thinking supports that view.
There is mounting evidence that even short bursts of physical activity in a green environment, such as a walk in the park, can have as therapeutic an effect as medication for some people affected by mental health issues. In research by the University of Essex, commissioned by the charity Mind , 94% of people experiencing mental distress who took part in ‘green exercise’ activities felt it had been beneficial to their mental health.
Conversely, a sedentary lifestyle can lead to a range of chronic conditions. Physical inactivity is now the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality and rivals smoking as a cause of preventable death in the UK. Only 39% of men and 29% of women get the recommended 150 minutes of exercise a week, while obesity rates continue to rise. So why don’t people just walk more?
Jack Skillen leads Living Streets’ award-winning work with communities which grew from the Fitter for Walking project, a BIG Lottery funded initiative which began in 2008. Since then, the team has worked with over 150 communities across the UK to help them reclaim their streets for walking. Typical barriers to walking might be neglected pathways or walking routes which consequently become alienating and hostile environments which pedestrians avoid. Jack’s team works with local people to rescue these public spaces and make them safe and attractive places where people want to walk. Making the most of green spaces is often at the heart of projects, says Jack.
“Planting bulbs is a simple but strategically effective activity we use to engage local stakeholders like schools and community groups. It doesn’t just ‘prettify’ the route; taking part gives people a very tangible investment in their local area and the act of planting together is very sociable and brings neighbours together.”
The Heygate Estate in south London was home to 3,000 council residents and 450 mostly London plane trees. Frequently cited as an example of the failure of modernist architecture to fulfil the utopian concept of high-density housing, and a concrete euphemism for crime, it’s now being demolished to make way for a £50 million development of shops, offices and private dwellings.
Restoration ecology expert, Professor John Handley, a consultant on the project, tells me they are using ground-penetrating radar to locate the roots of the trees and avoid disturbing them. Evidence that the value of greenery in our towns and cities is recognised and though our neighbourhoods may change socially and economically, nature remains a constant.
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