The Town Moor is a unique space within Newcastle. Popular with dog walkers, commuters, fitness enthusiasts and even roller skiers, it has been a refuge of space and nature amid its thriving city surroundings since the 12th century: the ‘green lung’ of Newcastle’s urban body.
So essential is it to the cultural lifeblood of the city, that the Town Moor has recently been chosen among only nine other locations across the UK as an example of an outstanding neighbourhood asset that puts pedestrians first. The inaugural Britain’s Best Walking Neighbourhood Award aimed to showcase the very best of the most accessible, foot-friendly spaces in the country before opening up the vote to the public – all with the incentive of promoting, protecting and enhancing urban walking.
The idea for the competition stems from the fact that, for many of us, ‘urban walking’ is still a bit of an alien concept. When we think about going out for a walk, we imagine pulling on our walking boots, packing a rucksack with all the essentials and driving out into the sticks or to the coast for a much-needed reintroduction to nature. It’s an event; an escape from our everyday lives that takes time, energy and effort, planning and preparation. In contrast, the idea of urban walking seeks to fit all the physical and mental benefits of a good hike into everyday routine; the school runs, the work commute and the weekly food shop. It sounds good in theory, but in reality it just doesn’t seem feasible to many of us.
The problem is that nearly all of Britain’s towns and cities have been designed without pedestrians in mind. Traffic is at an all-time high and large-scale building developments, which are increasingly designed to accommodate car travel rather than pedestrians, continue to disrupt the local landscape. The results leave urban environments increasingly unsafe, unpleasant, congested and difficult to navigate on foot. With the additional demands of trying to balance our careers with our social lives and family commitments, along with the expectation of being able to travel further distances in less time, it isn’t our natural impulse to leave the car keys behind when we go out of the front door.
As a nation, the impact that this is having on our health is significant. It is now well known that inactivity brings a significantly increased risk of developing chronic diseases, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and certain types of cancer. What is more often overlooked is the impact that a less active lifestyle has on our mental health too. Inhibited physical activity limits our social interactions, leading to more sedentary lifestyles which foster a higher prevalence of mental disorders.
Walking offers us a chance to connect with the people and places around us. It’s an opportunity to stretch our legs after hours behind a desk, and a way for us to stay in shape without shelling out on a gym membership. Adopting a more pedestrian lifestyle in our towns and cities in particular could save us thousands each year, in petrol costs or public transport fares – not to mention the fact that we would be actively engaged in reducing our nation’s carbon footprint. It’s a free, easy, eco-friendly and accessible activity that can be as much an excuse to socialise as a way to politely protect your much-needed alone time. It is, or can be, whatever you make of it.
Yet despite the mounting evidence that validates the physical, psychological and environmental health benefits that walking – and particularly urban walking – can offer us as a nation, recent figures from the Department for Transport show that walking trips have declined by almost a fifth (19 percent) over the last decade, with around 20 million adults currently failing to meet UK government recommendations for any type of physical activity at all. For Ramblers, an association of people and groups united by their love of walking and the outdoors, these statistics aren’t only disappointing but beg the overriding question: why?
Studies suggest that poorly designed spaces contribute significantly to our reluctance to ‘casually’ exercise. On the back of these findings, Ramblers have made it their mission to help encourage as many people as possible to go about their everyday lives on foot, by working closely with local authorities to improve urban areas for casual and recreational walking.
This mission was the cornerstone of their first ever Britain’s Best Walking Neighbourhood Award. By handpicking the ten best-kept urban spaces across Britain, and then opening up the vote for the nation’s favourite to the public, Ramblers hoped to create a nationwide discussion that would get the often-overlooked benefits of walking back into the forefront of our cultural consciousness. And while a healthy sense of competition among the nominees has certainly generated much-needed publicity to the cause, the organisation seems keen to stress that it’s not just the winning that counts.
Ramblers’ chief executive Vanessa Griffiths emphasises that the award is more of an overall showcase than a competition. ‘The ten shortlisted neighbourhoods’, she says, ‘have been designed or improved to prioritise people on foot. We’re celebrating these areas, and asking more local authorities to think about how they could improve walkability.’
As one of the ten best examples of a pedestrian-friendly urban environment, Newcastle’s Town Moor made it to the final vote before eventually losing out to Hastings Old Town. It’s easy to see why it got so far. With a network of tarmacked paths well-lit by street lights, the Town Moor remains as attractive by night as it does through the day. It hosts one of the largest travelling fun fairs in Europe every year, and its large expanse of green space is a magnet for visitors – offering something for the whole community.
Local MP Chi Onwurah was a strong advocate for the area’s involvement in the Ramblers’ campaign, describing the Town Moor as ‘a fantastic green lung, ancient grasslands still grazed by cows in the summer months, an easy route to healthier living and an attractive walking route whether you’re going into the city or just for the pleasure of exploring this vast green oasis.’
The Town Moor is clearly a source of great local pride already, and its centrality to Newcastle’s urban life hardly needs reiterating to the city’s residents. But the fact that it has now been recognised among just ten of the UK’s most celebrated urban locations is an honour and responsibility that shouldn’t be underestimated. The Freemen of the City, the Council, and others should take a bow and keep up the impressively good work in maintaining this historic and special part of the region.
The results of the Ramblers’ Britain’s Best Walking Neighbourhood Award didn’t quite go the way we would have liked for Newcastle’s Town Moor. But whatever else, the competition has brought greater and renewed attention to two things. Firstly, that cleaner, safer, more accessible and more enjoyable walking environments can offer a real solution to many of our nation’s current problems. Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, it has highlighted that these environments can work, realistically and profitably, as an active part of a thriving urban environment – in towns and cities all across the UK. With one of the nation’s favourite destinations on our doorstep, life in the North East really should be a walk in the park.