Response to Infrastructure 205026th April 2022
Welcome for Infrastructure 2050 – draft Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland
Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland (ORNI) welcomes the draft Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland and the vision for investing in infrastructure that ‘enables everyone to lead a healthy, productive and fulfilling life; supports sustainable economic development; and protects our environment’ (pg. 13). We are pleased that it seeks to align with other important long-term strategies, such as the Green Growth Strategy and the Environment Strategy to tackle the climate and health crises facing this and future generations. It is crucially important that government policies and plans are consistent and complementary at every level, and within this context infrastructure planning will have a crucial role to play in creating a greener and fairer society.
Scope of Response
ORNI is a not-for profit organisation who make it easier for people to responsibly enjoy the natural environment, with the vision of ‘a more active and healthy society appreciating the outdoors’. Therefore, we very much welcome the focus on this area within the Strategy as the importance of increasing people’s access to, participation in, and connection with the natural environment cannot be underestimated in delivering real improvements to peoples’ health and well-being. We welcome and agree with the broad thrust of the Strategy and recognise that all elements between the five Objectives are interlinked. However, given our remit and expertise, our comments add most value to Objective 3: ‘To Enhance Our Communities and Places’.
Objective 3: To Enhance Our Communities and Places
ORNI welcomes this Objective and strongly support its inclusion in the final version of the Infrastructure Strategy. We are encouraged by the recognition that ‘The value of open space, community, leisure, and recreation facilities has been highlighted clearly throughout the Covid pandemic. We need to restore and improve the quality of our natural environment for the benefit of all’ (pg. 37). Research from the People in the Outdoors Monitor for Northern Ireland (POMNI) March 2022 report backs up the importance of open (green and blue) space to individuals and society.
7 in 10 adults across Northern Ireland visited the outdoors for leisure at least once a week (71%) – this is 144 million visits over the course of a year! The most common activities are short walks (<2 miles or an hour), dog walking, spending time playing with children and running (61%, 30%, 17% and 11% respectively). Outdoor recreation participants gain a wide range of benefits – most notably over three quarters (77%) state that time outdoors is good for their mental health and wellbeing. The physical health benefits of spending time outdoors are also important with two in three taking visits for exercise, health, or fitness reasons (63%). Connecting with nature is also a key motivator for visiting green and blue spaces (41%).
We will now take in turn each of the Strategic Investment Priorities outlined under this Objective.
Strategic Investment Priority: Redefine the purpose of our high streets/urban centres
This Strategic Investment Priority states that the Executive will redefine the purpose of our high streets/urban centres by ‘regenerating our key urban and rural towns and villages, building on the work of the Northern Ireland High Street Task Force to ensure they are vibrant and thriving’. ORNI endorses the inclusion of leisure and open spaces within the provision of multi-functional hubs that will redefine the future role of our high streets. There are multiple reasons greenspaces should be central to the future planning of communities and spaces. These include but no limited to:
- Supporting nature to thrive everywhere (in towns, cities, and countryside) and enhance our cultural and personal connections with nature.
- Enabling active lifestyles that builds good physical and mental health.
- Creating prosperous communities that benefit everyone and adds value by creating high quality environments that are attractive to businesses and investors, create green jobs, support retails and high streets, and help drive prosperity and regeneration.
- Making places more resilient and adaptive to climate change and helping to meet zero carbon and air quality targets.
The benefits of quality greenspaces are reflected in the stated outcome that ‘People rather than vehicles should be the priority to encourage our high streets to be community-focused, attractive environments’ (pg. 38). Making our urban environments more outdoor recreation friendly is important to redress the participation disparity that exists across the Northern Ireland population.
While outdoor recreation is clearly beneficial for most of the population, levels of participation are not equal. According to the POMNI data, 8% of the population never spend leisure time outdoors, and population groups less likely to take regular visits include unemployed people, people with a long-term illness or disability and older age groups. Women are also less likely than men to visit at least once a week. We must innovate in the ways we design and plan our infrastructure to incorporate green and blue spaces that are inclusive and safe places for these population groups to use and enjoy as part of their everyday lives.
Strategic Investment Priority: Promote active travel, prioritizing walking, cycling, and wheeling for leisure and mobility
This Strategic Investment Priority states that the Executive will promote active travel, prioritizing walking, cycling, and wheeling for leisure and mobility ‘by encouraging active travel through the reallocation of funding and road space to prioritise safe and accessible walking and cycling for leisure and commuting; this will include the further development of Greenways, Quiet Lanes/Healthy Ways, and segregated pedestrian/cycle facilities’ (pg. 44).
ORNI welcomes the focus on active travel and leisure. Action Travel is not just about how we get people to work but also about getting people to outdoor recreation venues more sustainably. This is often overlooked, but a pre-Covid Travel Survey showed that there were as many miles travelled for ‘leisure and other’ journeys as there were for ‘commuting and business’ (31% of the overall share each). Car journeys for recreational purposes are more than likely to have increased during the pandemic as it has brought long-term changes to how and where we work and exercise.
Therefore, the Infrastructure Strategy must enable modal shifts for how people get to outdoor spaces on foot or by bicycle and by public transport, and importantly, to include targets for more greenspaces closer to where people live to mitigate the need to travel in the first place. POMNI data shows that one-third of spending to the outdoors is currently on ‘fuel for your vehicle’ (33%) which is estimated to amount to just over £300 million per year! More local provision and green routes to outdoor places will be needed to reduce travel and achieve net-zero targets. This is recognised in the draft Strategy which acknowledges:
We must rethink how and when we travel, creating more sustainable, accessible, and safer communities through improvements for pedestrians and cyclists and prioritising our public transport. Electric and zero-emissions vehicles (EV/ZEV) will play an important part, especially for longer and rural journeys if public transport is not available. However, the design of our town and city centres will need to encourage and reflect a determined move to sustainable and active travel. Our infrastructure will also have to adapt to meet the needs and aspirations of an ageing population (pg.40).
ORNI very much endorse the principles behind the ‘15-Minute City’ concept. The POMNI research clearly evidences that people who live within a shorter walk of greenspace visit the outdoors more. 80% of those who live within a 5-minute walk or less visit the outdoors at least once a week and frequency of visits reduce for those who are 6-10 minutes (76%) and 11-20 minutes (74%) walk away from their nearest greenspace. There is a significant drop-away at 21-30 minutes to just 62% of residents visiting the outdoors and this evidence backs up the ’15-Minute City’ principle.
To implement this concept, we strongly recommend that the development of a National Walking Strategy is included within the Infrastructure Strategy. This has been enormously effective elsewhere, for example Scotland published its National Walking Strategy in 2014 and this resulted in a 15% increase in recreational walking by 2017. Walking is highly cost-effective and demonstrates that prevention really is better than cure. The challenge now for the Northern Ireland Executive is to put this into practice by developing and implementing a cross-departmental Walking Strategy. The vision of this Strategy would be to enable a society where everyone benefits from walking as part of their everyday journeys, enjoys walking in the outdoors and which has easy access to places well designed to encourage walking.
With much of the focus of this Strategic Investment Priority centered on cities and towns, ORNI has a responsibility to also champion the need for rural interventions. Removing the current narrow focus on urban centres is crucial for the Northern Ireland context as the POMNI data reveals that access to greenspace and off-road trails is not equal and tends to be lower for residents of rural areas than those who live in urban areas. For example, in response to a question about whether local paths and trails were ‘within easy walking distance’, 79% of urban residents agreed this was true, compared to only 57% of rural residents. This leads to many people being forced to walk on dangerous roads or drive considerable distances to safe off-road trails and greenspaces with public access.
As this Strategy takes a long-term view, looking forward to 2050, we would urge that it should take direction from the targets placed in the new Environment Strategy. These targets are that by 2050:
- 90% of households have publicly accessible quality natural space >2ha within 400m of their home and at least one site >20ha in size within 2km.
- 90% of the population visiting the natural outdoors at least once a week.
- Every child aged 4-11 spends 1+ hours in nature rich settings each month.
To redress the current inequality between urban and rural areas we welcome the recognition that ‘Active travel will need to be attractive and practical in both rural and urban areas, not just for leisure travel but for daily mobility and for children to get to school’ (pg. 41). However, ORNI believes that ‘Quiet Lanes / Healthy Ways’ is a very specific, limited, and tactical method – and that a more strategic approach would be Community Trail Planning.
Community Trails facilitate safe and accessible connectors in rural areas between people and their environment. Particularly, in rural areas, Community Trails provide walking and cycling opportunities within easy walking distance and connect communities to their green space(s) and to each other. They lead to more active and healthy communities appreciating the outdoors closer to home, more sustainably and more equitably.
The mandate for local authorities to develop Council-wide Community Trail Plans is included within the Environment Strategy and we would urge that the final Infrastructure Strategy shares this synergy to maximise impact for communities and make best use of our resources. Community Trail Plans develop and implement a plan for natural green connectors and corridors across cities, towns, and landscapes, connecting communities and people to green spaces.
Newry, Mourne and Down District Council completed the first and only Council-wide Community Trail Plan in 2018. As a result, many Community Trail opportunities were identified through extensive community consultation, and by just March 2021:
- 9 trails were delivered on the ground through partnership approach between Council and landowners (public and private)
- Investment of over £1.5million to date on these new trails
- 7 trails had counters installed, reporting a total of 122,252 visits in 2019 – equivalent to 5556 football matches.
Strategic Investment Priority: Develop our sports, culture, arts, and leisure facilities and enhance our natural environment
This Strategic Investment Priority states that the Executive will develop our sports, culture, arts, and leisure facilities and enhance our natural environment by ‘expanding the provision of high-quality, accessible green space, leisure, and sporting facilities; by supporting and enhancing our natural environment and by maintaining our arts and cultural venues’ (pg.43).
ORNI fully supports expanding provision of high-quality accessible green space and enhancing our natural environment. As outlined above, the POMNI data reveals that the availability and quality of local greenspaces influences frequency of visits to the outdoors with a clear correlation between frequency of time spent outdoors and the perceived proximity and quality of places to visit. In terms of rating local greenspaces:
- A quarter of the population (24%) do not feel that their ‘local greenspaces are of a high enough standard to want to spend time there’
- Nearly a third of the population (30%) do not feel that ‘the facilities at my local greenspaces meet my needs’
- Nearly a quarter of the population do not ‘feel safe visiting my local greenspaces’.
Rating of local greenspace tended to be lower amongst women, unemployed people, people with a disability and those living in rural areas. With this data in mind, it is important to think beyond traditional parks and look towards the success of Community Trails which are natural green connectors and corridors across that connect communities to each other and people to green spaces. They are equally effective rural areas where there are less accessible greenspaces and trails.
ORNI is currently leading on developing a Green Space Map for Northern Ireland. This first authoritative map of all off-road trails and accessible greenspace is being designed so:
- The ‘90% of the population within a 5-minute walk of quality green/blue space’ target can be objectively measured;
- Government departments and agencies, Councils, and eNGOs can use it to inform planning (e.g., housing, infrastructure and transport, and integrating good green infrastructure that connects people to nature and enables active travel), gap analysis in current provision, resource allocation, site suitability assessments and demographic analysis (e.g., health and deprivation etc), and;
- The data will be visually engaging and published on Spatial NI (for stakeholders), OutmoreNI (for consumers) and OpenDataNI.
The Green Space Map will help achieve a strategic and joined-up approach to planning, developing, and connecting green infrastructure – ensuring that more communities can connect with high quality open space and natural environments, and receive all the benefits that come with it. To learn more about the Green Space Map that will be launched later this year, please see the clip from our conference last month: Outdoor Recreation: Achieving Northern Ireland’s Potential. If you would like a tailored presentation, please contact Dr Elizabeth Rogers at email@example.com.