‘Jographies’ can be defined as the ‘geographical perspective on running’, and extensive research has been conducted into the experiences and spatialities of recreational solo road running. However, with many running groups across the country, can we design and manage our streets, spaces and parks to increase the number of people who use them and ultimately improve community health?
The answer is yes, but the existing city environment can make the possibility of group running difficult.
Running is one of the cheapest, most accessible, and effective forms of exercise and has been proved to offer as many mental health and social benefits as physical. Running outdoors gives us the opportunity to connect with our surroundings, escape the pressures of day to day life, and be closer to nature.
Current running route issues include: traffic volume and speed, footway width, lighting, trip hazards and the ‘obstacle courses’ often created by street furniture. There is also a separation between seasons, with summertime routes often utilizing green infrastructure such as parks and promenades, and winter runs conducted along dark suburban streets and industrial estates. If we could design a greener infrastructure for these areas, reflecting the needs of runners on a more consistent level (including dark nights and winter months), running would provide community health benefits all year round.
Addressing these issues would require the redesign of roads, making them inclusive of wider footpaths, minimal street furniture, better crossing points and a reduction in obstacles such as parked cars and bollards. These changes would enable a safer space, and better utilized running routes. In addition, using the current green infrastructure such as parks with enhancements such as better lighting and group exercise classes would bring natural surveillance, making them safer for everyone. Improved management of traffic speed and volume could also potentially encourage more communities to use their surrounding spaces to run, and ultimately improve physical and mental wellbeing.
Road running clubs have already set up an enormous network of routes across our towns and cities, supplemented by easily accessible digital information on apps such as MapMyRun and Strava.
“There is scope for local authorities to be strategic in their approach and to take a more active role by generating awareness of these networks, and improving the standards of common running routes whilst simultaneously completing general scheduled road maintenance.”
Furthermore, local authorities could look to set up running clubs in lower socio-economical areas as a way of introducing a low cost and easily accessible form of exercise for communities. Such groups would not only make enhanced use of their surrounding spaces, but also provide the social infrastructure required to encourage people to undertake quality exercise for a lifetime rather than slipping away from exercise – ultimately improving community health.
Of course, the benefits that group running has on community health can also be extended to other low impact exercise such as cycling. Already popular in many cities across the UK, cycling for pleasure or exercise also involves safety risks within urban environments and its recent rise in popularity has increased demand for city-wide facilities. Whilst some cities do offer access to outdoor velodromes or dedicated 1km tracks, these are few and far between and tend to require club membership. The alternative provision of green infrastructure to meet cycling demand could be achieved by making ‘looped’ cycle routes, which would provide more room and a dedicated space for cyclists to use for exercise.
Design and management of our streets, spaces and parks to increase community health is a real possibility but it requires a powerful contribution from the individual, community and city authorities to create spaces that are suitable and safe for active health. By providing key elements that are conducive to achieving a better use of green infrastructure and urban cityscapes, community health has the basis for a thriving network of runners and cyclists turning exercise into a positive social experience that is something to be enjoyed – not endured.