By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine
Rambling in the countryside has never been so popular, but a conference this weekend will examine how taking a daily stroll down the High Street can breathe new life into towns.
Neighbourhoods without any pavements, just roads. It might seem like a bizarre concept, but new housing developments in America are being built without anywhere to walk. The only stroll that's taken in the local vicinity is from the front door to the car.
The urban walks a person does each day are often overlooked and seen as a chore or a means to an end. How can a daily stroll to a corner shop for a pint of milk compare with a long ramble in the countryside when it comes to wellbeing?
But the benefits of these trips reach far beyond just stretching the legs, says national charity Living Streets. They can reduce crime, ease social isolation, shape community identity and boost local businesses. In short, they are what keeps neighbourhoods - and their inhabitants - thriving.
"The life we have outside the front door and on the street helps shape who we are," says Hester Brown of Living Streets. "Family life, school and work are crucial in forming our identity, but so is the street. From dress sense to social skills, we pick up a lot from interacting and observing others walking on the pavements with us."
The charity, which used to be the Pedestrian Association, is hosting a conference this weekend to examine how to get more people walking. It says a simple stroll around the neighbourhood creates a virtuous circle of walking, shopping and community life.
Cars and buses eat into a pedestrian's space
But with an increasing number of people turning to the car as their favoured way to get around, communities are getting trapped in a spiralling decline.
"The more we use the car, the less we walk and so the streets are emptier," says environmental journalist Guy Shaw.
"Anti-social behaviour increases, local shops close and public spaces fall into a state of disrepair. All of which persuades even more people to use their motor instead of their feet. It is a vicious circle that we definitely need to break.
"Unfortunately the car is definitely king of Britain's streets," he says. "Pedestrians don't have priority and are pushed down into subways and up onto bridges. They're herded behind barriers and bombarded with traffic from all directions. No wonder they opt for the car."
Of course public transport and other forms of getting about also detract from walkers' rights.
Fear of crime is cited as one of the main reasons why people chose their car over walking, but when people withdraw from the street the space becomes available to criminals and anti-social elements. Pedestrians provide natural surveillance and see and hear crime, says the charity.
The impact on locals businesses and services is also dire, it says, citing the claim that more than 1,000 town, district and local centres are in economic decline and over 40% of independent food, drink and tobacco retailers have closed over the last decade.
But the RAC says motorists cannot take the flak for all society's ills.
"People sometimes feel safer at night walking along a busy road than they would do in a pedestrianised zone. The passing cars afford them protection," says Edmund King, of the RAC Foundation. Indeed, the police sometimes advise women to stick to busy streets after dark.
And slowing traffic on main roads, for the benefit of those on foot, could be self defeating.
"What happens then is that drivers splinter off into side roads looking for a quicker route, so side streets fill up with more cars."
Besides, motorists are pedestrians as well, says Mr King, who willingly admits not all car journeys are valid.
Getting the driving habit at an early age
"We have no problem with the view that some car journeys are unnecessary - about 20% we would say, like trips to the High Street or to the local station."
But Britain's besieged foot soldiers have seen the pendulum swing back their way in recent years, as councils have widened pavements and improved road crossings, says Mr King.
Schemes such as Home Zones - there are more than 100 in the UK - have been set up where streets are redesigned to be places to meet and children can play and cycle.
Initial reactions have been good. There are less cars using the roads and speeds have been reduced. A survey of a scheme in Methleys, near Leeds, found an increase in children playing with their friends, while half of the adult residents thought motorists were more considerate.
Yet without more such schemes, says Living Streets, we could be following in America's slipstream, and do away with pavements altogether.
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