Ian Findlay CBE: Walk back better

Our Chief Officer reflects on his vision for a 'new normal' for Scotland, with walking at its heart

Ian's granddaugher Phoebe enjoying a local walk during lockdown

Recently I had the pleasure of chairing the first ever online Comrie Conversation. The purpose of these local gatherings in my home village of Comrie is to start a debate on issues of importance to Scotland and to our community. We invite a couple prominent speakers to stimulate and provoke our thinking and then have a good blether.

The Comrie Conversation I chaired was the first in a series of three events looking at how we want to emerge from the Covid19 pandemic and associated lockdown. Around 100 folks took part. I came away from this event with a sense that everyone’s been through a lot. Lockdown has been a stressful and worrying time for many and for some a sadly tragic time.  However, it’s also been an unprecedented and massive jolt to our ‘normal’ lives and community that has allowed us to glimpse different ways of living, including a better future. There was a lot of inspiring blether about creating a ‘new normal’ and ‘building back better’. I also got a sense that no one wanted to return to everything that was part of our pre-pandemic ‘normal’. There was a tangible appetite for positive lasting change and no shortage of good ideas on how to do this.

I know from the numerous other conversations that I’m involved in through my work and voluntary activities that Comrie is not unique. Similar ‘new normal’, ‘build back better’ conversations are happening all over the place, in communities, in workplaces, at the national level and even internationally. For example, more recently, I attended the fifth Climate Summit organised by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. The title of the Summit was ‘Coronavirus and a Green Recovery’. The delegates were national players, experts from a wide range of sectors. It was another inspiring event, but what particularly stuck me was although it was a very different audience to the Comrie event, the overall desire, indeed imperative, for transformational change and retaining and building on some of the positives of lockdown was very apparent.

There are so many significant positives from lockdown that people want to retain: more kindness, a greater sense of community, cleaner air, quieter roads and skies, shopping local, daily exercise, working from home, etc.  It’s an impressive list for a better society! 

However, I’d like to focus on one that’s close to my heart and work, the daily exercise and in particular walking.

During lockdown, one of permitted activities for most of us (and I’ll expand on why I’ve said ‘most of us’ later on) has been ‘safe’ daily exercise outdoors. I’ve been truly delighted by the significant increase in recreational walking.  Simply going for a walk for enjoyment, relaxation, destressing, fun has been incredibly important for many of us. The statistics are impressive.  For example, a recent YouGov study reported that 61% of people in Scotland were walking more for exercise since lockdown compared with before. Going back to my Comrie experience, I’ve seen people walking in the village who I’ve never seen walking before! It’s been lovely to see so many family groups out walking.

People have taken the opportunity to walk daily either on their own or as a household. The daily outdoor exercise has been seen as real treat, especially in such worrying times. The daily walk is connecting us more with our local place, with nature, with each other and with ourselves. At Paths for All we’ve produced guidance on walking during Covid19, including a guided walking mediation, Mind to Walk’. The take-up of and feedback on these resources has been extraordinary.

I’d go so far as to say that we’re experiencing nothing short of a renaissance in the joy of walking, the daily promenade.

Let’s not underestimate the potential importance of this renaissance. Walking is an activity that pretty much everyone can do. It’s free, easy, doesn’t require any special equipment and is low risk. In terms of public health and our individual and collective health and wellbeing, a 30-minute daily walk can have a massive positive impact on our physical and mental health. Walking can also help tackle climate change in that it is the ideal, low-carbon way to travel for everyday short journeys. On biodiversity loss, walking is the best way of connecting with nature, which research tells us is a foundation for encouraging greener lifestyles. And I could go on and on about the value and benefits of walking…

However, as I said above, I feel it’s important to bear in mind that not all of us have been able to be part of this walking renaissance. Some of us have been shielding and some of us have simply not felt up to going for a walk or taking exercise for a whole number of good reasons, including stress, anxiety and illness. But my hope and believe is that even for this group, indeed maybe especially for this group, walking can be part of a personal ‘build back better’ after lockdown.

Finally, if we are to truly capitalise on this walking renaissance for everyone in the new ‘build back better’ world, we must prioritise walking more in public policy, delivery and investment.  All too often our walking environment and experiences are poorer than they should be, and the walking voice is drowned out by other louder voices.  We must invest much more in walking infrastructure across the whole country. 

I believe we have an incredibly precious and probably quite short time-framed opportunity to capitalise on our new-found love of walking. A combination of positive community activism and regional and national leadership will be required to realise the dream.

I’ll be honest, I feel excited and anxious in equal measure at the moment. Excited at all the great ideas I’m hearing about a fairer, kinder, healthier, happier and more environmental responsible future, but anxious that we don’t seize this precious moment on time. For walking, we’ve seen glimpses of what ‘walking back to better’ might look like.

Please help Paths for All and me take the right path here by making this a new reality for everyone.   


Written by Ian Findlay CBE, Paths for All Chief Officer. Follow Ian on Twitter @i_findlay

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