New research highlights strong correlations between race and class and accessibility to public footpaths

Sign for public footpaths in Chigwell
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A new report by the Ramblers, a walking charity, has laid out in granular detail the race and class privileges of access to nature. In particular, the paper revealed that the whitest areas of England and Wales contain 144% more footpaths than the most ethnically diverse areas. Furthermore, modern housing developments are only making the situation worse.

Old, wealthy, healthy and white

The Ramblers published Who has a public right of way? on 20 September using research by the New Economics Foundation (NEF). The organisation said it’s likely the first systematic neighbourhood-level study of access to public rights of way (PRoWs) and open access land in England and Wales.

Having mapped out over 140,000 miles of existing footpaths across the two nations, the NEF measured them against the centre of each postcode. It then determined approximate travel times from each postcode to the closest PRoW. It used 800m – or ten minutes of walking time – as a benchmark for accessibility.

The report’s conclusions were stark:

‘Who has a right of way in England and Wales today?’. The answer, in the simplest of terms, is the old, the wealthy, the healthy, and the white.

The findings included the following:

  • The least deprived areas have 80% greater PRoW provision than the most deprived.
  • The whitest areas have 144% greater PRoW provision than the most ethnically diverse.
  • The areas with the most health problems (as measured by heart attack prevalence) have the lowest PRoW provision.
  • The areas with the highest number of people over 65 had more than twice the amount of footpaths than areas with the least number of people under 65.

It noted that, given the close relationship between race and economic deprivation in the UK, these findings are “unsurprising”.

Read on...

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The NEF’s data also showed that new housing developments have exacerbated the problem. Estates built between 1965 and 1972 have 40% better access to PRoWs within a ten-minute walk than those built after 2000. While accessibility has steadily dropped since the 1965-72 peak, it dropped off significantly in the 2000s. The Ramblers said that the research showed this:

is statistically correlated with a decline in the green space visitation rates of the residents, even after controlling for other key factors influencing visitation rates.

Right to roam

Tables listing the ten local authorities with the highest and lowest number of footpaths show how access differs from region to region. In nine of the top ten local authority areas, everyone is able to reach a PRoW of three kilometres or more within 400m or a five-minute walk. Meanwhile, fewer than half the people living in nine out of the ten bottom local authorities have similar access.

Norwich is an extreme outlier. It sits at the bottom of the local authorities list and offers just 6.02% of its population five-minute access to a footpath that’s three kilometres or longer. Furthermore, the Ramblers’ report states people in the city have just 129m of PRoW within a ten-minute walk. Right to Roam Norwich, which campaigns for better public access to the land, told the Canary:

This latest study is disappointing but not at all surprising. Despite sitting in the middle of the Broads National Park, public access to land and waterways in Norwich is abysmally poor. The knock-on effects of this on people’s mental and physical health, alongside our disconnect with nature, is all too clear. This study confirms what we have experienced to be true and people are ready and waiting for things to change.

Norwich is also a very disconnected city in terms of public transport links to the countryside. There are few services running regular buses outside of the city and those that do operate so infrequently that planning a same day return with a walk in between is nigh on impossible.

The NEF’s data also corresponds to similar research by the national Right to Roam campaign. The Canary previously reported that 92 constituencies in England and Wales have no right-to-roam pathways at all, while a further 117 have a right to roam on less than one hectare. These areas broadly corresponded to the most ethnically diverse regions.

Doubling footpaths, abolishing footpaths

The Ramblers said that:

doubling the average length of paths in a neighbourhood would result in an additional annual 78.5 million walks in nature across England and Wales

To achieve this, it recommended two solutions. First is the recovery of lost footpaths, which would add an average of 38% more PRoW across England and Wales, with the most economically deprived areas benefitting the most. Second, the Ramblers called for investment in creating new footpaths to double average length of footpaths. The organisation estimated this would cost £650m a year.

Meanwhile, Right to Roam Norwich offered the Canary another alternative:

While the introduction of stronger planning rules to ensure new housing developments have access to local paths would be a step in the right direction, we believe the only way to ensure equality of access to land is by introducing a Right to Roam Reform, similar to that which has been enjoyed by Scotland for the past 20 years.

Scotland’s laws on land access mean the public is able to responsibly use almost all land and inland waterways for recreational purposes.

Disrupt tradition

The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Reconnecting people with the English and Welsh landscape could be the change to turn the nature crisis around. Or, at the very least, it might benefit individual physical and mental health. That could be done through improving PRoWs, or by abolishing the need for footpaths in the first place by introducing a right to roam.

Whatever the solution, it’s clear that some sort of land justice is needed immediately. What’s more, any potential solution needs to focus on disrupting the age-old connections between whiteness, wealth, and accessibility.

Featured image via Colin Smith/Flickr

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