Daisy Narayanan, STP Board Member and Deputy Director for Built Environment at Sustrans Scotland, explains the importance of active travel to creating healthier, happier places. First posted at Sustrans

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Prior to moving to Edinburgh in 2004, I had lived for a few years in a beautiful small town in America.  My house was located in a gated community right next to a lake with a gorgeous bike trail, a gym and a pool less than a mile away. Perfect conditions, one would think, to lead a healthy lifestyle?

However, I would drive to the gym to get exercise. I would drive to the nearest shop a mile away to do my grocery shop. When I felt a bit low, I would hop in my car and drive a few hours for a walk in the mountains to feel better. I had no choice, the roads were designed to encourage you to drive and cycling was not seen as an everyday transport option.

Moving to Edinburgh changed all of that.

I lived in the compact heart of Edinburgh surrounded by people living, working and playing in the city. It felt incredible to be in a vibrant public realm starkly in contrast to where I had just been.

I walked everywhere and traipsing up the Edinburgh hills gradually got easier! I then got a bicycle and enjoyed discovering this amazing city on foot and by bike. I felt healthier and happier than I had ever before.

Impact of physical inactivity

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, we have allowed ‘unhealthy transport’ to be prioritised at the expense of more active modes. This has had an impact in the UK not only on the attractiveness of our places but also on our public health.

The health and well-being benefits of people-focussed places have now been long-established.

We pay a high cost for Scotland’s inactivity - physical inactivity contributes to nearly 2,500 deaths annually and costs NHS Scotland around £94 million per year.
For a healthier Scotland, supportive policy and infrastructure investment can make cycling or walking the natural choice for short journeys, reversing the trend of physical inactivity.

Designing safe and attractive walking and cycling infrastructure

There are a few things we need to get right as a priority if we are to have a significant impact on public health:

  • We need to create high-quality public places that work for us all and one way to do it is by making walking and cycling facilities visible, attractive and an easy choice.
  • We need to recalibrate our existing streets and roads to meet the needs of people on foot and on bike. That can only be done through by ensuring that all aspects of the design - safety, coherence, directness, comfort and attractiveness - are integrated into the vision for a place at the outset. 
  • We need to ensure that natural green spaces are integral to our public realm. 
  • We need to seize the ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunities to transform healthy transport infrastructure by embedding provision for walking and cycling in to capital infrastructure projects from the start – right from roads to integrated public transport.
  • Finally, we need to work better with new residential and mixed-use developments and ensure high quality and prominent walking and cycling facilities are provided from the outset. These need to be encouraged through planning policies and controls as well as through a buy-in from public and private developers who can help create healthy and liveable neighbourhoods.

Connecting people and places

The work that we do through Sustrans projects and programmes are enabling more people to incorporate physical activity into their daily routines.

Sustrans Community Links programme provides new or improved walking and cycling routes to connect communities in Scotland.

Two-thirds of those surveyed on Sustrans Community Links projects completed their 30 minutes of physical activity five or more days per week. The lowest reported increase in activity as a result of a Community Links project in 2015 was as high as 70%.5.

Investing in cycling and walking infrastructure is making Scotland healthier.

Engaging people in conversations about place

People need to have a say on those aspects of a place which impact on their health, wellbeing and quality of life.

We have seen that our most successful projects are those where communities are have led the vision and aspirations for their surroundings.

Although this may sound complicated, there are frameworks that provide a structured process to carry out such engagement.

For example, in Scotland, The Place Standard Tool, enables communities to have informed conversations about their place. 

Built jointly by NHS Health Scotland, the Scottish Government and Architecture & Design Scotland, this tool provides a simple framework to structure these conversations and allows people to think about the physical as well as social elements of a place.

These conversations can directly influence the planning and co-design of healthy, sustainable places.

And in London, the Healthy Streets approach, which states ‘A street that works for people is a street that is good for health’, has now been adopted as policy.

A well-designed place, respecting and reflecting informed conversations about its quality, could create transformational change in our quality of life.

Find out more about our walking and cycling infrastructure services.

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