Walking Away from COVID-19

Reflections on the benefits of walking in a time of physical isolation

Nigel Smith
Kerry Wilson
April 20, 2020
6 minute read

This is a special joint-reflection with our collaborator, RecPeople. We worked with RecPeople on the Hepburn Transport Project. Our shared experience in building community through physical activity prompted Kerry and Nigel to put two pens on one piece of paper. We hope you enjoy!

“In the garden birds are singing

The sun is shining on the path

The wind is talking to the flowers

The dogs and cats all take a bath

And if you stop that talking

You can hear the traffic sigh

Throw away those keys

Start walking, watch those

Tiny things go by

Accident’ly Kelly Street

Where friends and strangers

Sometimes meet

Accident’ly Kelly Street

I never thought life could be so sweet.”

The two of us who wrote this reflection are well into our middle age, so we are kind of susceptible to this awful virus. But we also have the joy of being able to recall this super happy song from 1992. It’s all about enjoying the simple pleasures of walking around Kelly Street and its neighbourhood.

We are also experienced practitioners in behaviour change at the nexus of active communities and active lifestyles. Naturally, we are gutted by what we are seeing in the closure of gyms, playgrounds, sporting grounds and parks. The loss of community brought about by the temporary stop to these activities is profound. While there isn’t any data yet on the impact to the sector and users, what we do know in Australia is that in 2011 sport contributed $2.8B to the economy with around 2.3M volunteers, 100,000 employees, 25,000 fitness instructors, 10,000 swim instructors, 3000 umpires, 11.1M participants in sport and rec and 5.2M in organised sport. Participation and community connection has been disrupted to unparalleled proportions.

However, there is an unlikely saviour to our current isolated physical circumstance – you guessed it. Walking! Walking (or wheeling) is under-rated as a form of exercise, transport and social connection. It is even good economics. If you live alone, you can walk. If you live in a larger household, you can walk together. If you see someone, you can wave and say hello. You can admire their dog. You can even just give them a nod. All of these small acts build community in your neighbourhood while at the same time improving your health. We can’t underestimate the benefits.

Even modest amounts of walking (30mins, three times a week) are proven to have the following benefits. Notice these are a mix of social, economic and environmental benefits:

  • Disease prevention and management
  • Improved mental health
  • Better sleep and productivity
  • Contributes to a sense of achievement
  • Reduced risk of falls
  • Active streets and improved sense of safety
  • Household transport cost savings
  • Increased local shopping and economic support
  • Improved sociability and neighbourhood cohesion
  • Personal and communal agency
  • Enhanced likelihood of using public transport
  • Improved planet health through reduced carbon and congestion and better air quality

This is a long list of benefits for a simple and universally accessible act. To quote another song from our past – nothing compares, nothing compares, to you walking (apologies Sinéad O’Connor).

There is another significant benefit of walking, but it is harder to quantify. It is improved sense of belonging - and it makes sense. As Frente sang – ‘watch those tiny things go by’. When we move at walking speed, we see things in our neighbourhood we can’t see at car speed. These things are what makes up our place in the world. It might be the rose garden in the next street, or the quirky letter box on the corner, or the climbing tree in the vacant lot or a million other things that have escaped our attention as we previously zoomed past them. The important thing here is that you can notice these things whether or not you are able to walk with other people. You might be surprised at how large and interesting your neighbourhood becomes over the next weeks as you walk more than you ever have before. Belonging to a place often leads to greater willingness to contribute to it - and don’t we all need this in our lives at the moment?

There are a number of other ways in which our built environment shapes our community life. Like Kelly Street, 70% of housing in Australia is suburban and detached. These homes are often designed in such a way that you can’t see people move from a car to inside the home. So, another good thing about walking is that you use your front door. You’re more likely to acknowledge your neighbours when you spy each other across the street or across the fence. Our suburbs are also quite low density and designed primarily for motorised transport, so the distances between different uses can be quite large. This makes it difficult to walk for a purpose other than exercise.

Walking is the super-hero of physical activity as the highest sport and recreation participatory activity year in year out. Yet it seems to go unnoticed and is relatively invisible in comparison to other recreation activities from a planning, development and investment point of view. We hope that the increase in walking over the next weeks and months results in people demanding the ability to undertake more purposeful walking trips, like to more local shops, to work, to schools and parks. To do this, we must address walking challenges such as missing links, bottlenecks, dead ends, circuitous routes, narrow paths, and no crossings or curbs, to mention just a few.

Our reflection is simple. Right now, very few of us have an excuse not to walk. Walking may be considered the single most effective thing we can do for health and social cohesion at this time. As we move out of isolation in the coming months, we trust the walking carries on, that it grabs attention and renews interest in walking. This is especially true for decision makers at all levels of government to respond purposefully to the increased demand temporarily, and then more permanently.

Here are some of the questions we’ve come up with that leverage the new community demand for walking. If you’re in a position to influence walking behaviour, now is a great time to be planning for the next six months - and don’t forget the resources of organisations like VictoriaWalks.

  • When we shift to recovery could this present the best chance for walking promotion while it is front and centre?
  • Can we enable more local governments and their communities to develop and implement walking plans and deliver infrastructure?
  • How do we see more dollars allocated to walking from state and federal governments?
  • Given people’s new found love for walking, can we better balance some of the known challenges to walking take-up?
  • Do we catalyse popular opinion to garner greater political focus?
  • What planning rules might we seek to relax in dormitory suburbs so that more destinations are walkable from people’s front doors?
  • What data do we need, and how do we collect it for new cost/benefit analysis?

This could be the start of a walking revolution so everyone and every community can enjoy the benefits of their very own Kelly Street.

Nigel Smith is an urban practitioner and academic with a 20-year career delivering people-centred design and strategy for the corporate, not-for-profit and government sectors.

Kerry Wilson has been involved in creating environments that foster access, equity, sustainability and participation for more than 25 years in the not for profit and public sectors.

Header Photo by Paul Dufour on Unsplash

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