Britons need to walk more – but their cities aren’t set up for it

Walking: basically a gym. Image: Getty.

An evidence review by Public Health England (PHE) hit the headlines last week, after the government agency found that a large chunk of middle aged adults are doing little to no exercise on a regular basis. According to PHE, 41 per cent of middle aged adults in England (defined as those aged 40-60) walk less than ten minutes at a brisk pace in an average month.

The coverage of this report is all focused on individual behaviour. Headlines covering the study proclaimed that “Millions of English adults failing to go on a brisk 10-minute walk every month”, and “Six million middle-aged people take no exercise”. As a nation, it seems we’ve forgotten the basics of leading a healthy lifestyle. We commute to work, we sit at our desks – and we find little time for exercise against the competing demands of work and family. As a result, our physical and mental health worsen. We need to get moving, and walking is a pretty simple way to start.

In light of the findings, PHE are trying to encourage us all to walk more frequently. The organisation has launched a campaign to get people to take up the challenge of walking briskly for 10 minutes a day, accompanied by an app to help us keep track.

The report acknowledges that previous official advice of doing two and a half hours of intensive activity a week doesn’t seem like a realistic goal for many people. On the other hand, walking is, in theory, an easy choice to make. It doesn’t require any specific equipment, you don’t need to be young and fit to walk, and you don’t need to go to a special place or pay any money.

But reasons why we do or don’t go for a walk are not just about personal choice or inclination. Structural factors influence whether we walk at all, how frequently and how far. Our activity levels are influenced by our social networks, whether we feel safe in our communities, our proximity to green space, and by the design of our cities, towns and neighbourhoods.


There is good evidence on this latter point – Including from PHE themselves. For example, the design and planning of an area can encourage or discourage walking and cycling. A spatial planning review from PHE highlighted the importance of neighbourhood ‘walkability’ in increasing physical activity. Elsewhere, our evidence review on urban design shows that providing safe and convenient footpaths encourages people to walk and cycle more.

How active we are is also influenced by our socioeconomic status. Barriers to physical activity affect some groups more than others and social deprivation affects our capacity to go for a swim, walk or run. Children in deprived areas are nine times less likely to have access to green space or somewhere to play.

To reduce health inequalities, we need to recognise and reduce the barriers to participation. Some of these barriers are the cost of childcare, the cost of transport, and social isolation. London is the third greenest city in the world – but a single mum who has no-one to go for a walk with and no easy transport route to a park faces bigger barriers than others.

Directors of public health are based in local government. As a result there’s an opportunity to do something about this: councils have a major role in influencing some of these factors. Planning, housing, transport, leisure and parks are all core local government responsibilities. We’ve found in our current public health research project that directors of public health across England work with a range of council departments and voluntary sector agencies to improve population health.

There is nevertheless an opportunity to do more, to join up work with the organisations and people that can help tackle the barriers to improving health across all groups. Recognising that the problem is about more than just individual behaviour will be a good place to start.

Lucy Terry is a senior researcher at the New Local Government Network.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.