We talk to Dr Andrew Read, founder of Walking Projects Plus CIC, about his mission to get Greater Manchester walking, what COVID-19 means for active travel and what ‘netwalking’ is.
Walking Projects Plus CIC is a social enterprise launched in 2020 to deliver a wide variety of services related to walking, recreation and active travel. These include route development and research, website and app projects, community consultation and involvement, and mapping and guiding.
Founder Dr Andrew Read has received support to grow the business in the form of GC Business Growth Hub’s Switched On business development programme, designed specifically for SMEs in Greater Manchester’s green technologies and services sector.
How did Walking Projects Plus get started?
I’ve had quite a varied career – I’ve been a university lecturer and worked in marketing, translation and the digital sector, but walking has always been a real passion of mine. About ten years ago I had the idea for the ‘GM Ringway’ trail, a 20-stage, 300km walking route for Greater Manchester that uses our public transport network to connect people with the green spaces and countryside of all ten boroughs.
I started working on the project in earnest in 2018 when walking and cycling started to come into their own as policy objectives in Greater Manchester. There is a real drive now to enhance people’s wellbeing and reduce the city region’s carbon footprint by encouraging walking and sustainable travel. This ultimately led to the founding of Walking Projects Plus CIC in 2020 as a vehicle for using walking and active travel to benefit the environment, the economy and public health.
Are there any existing projects you’re working on in Greater Manchester?
The GM Ringway trail (see the route below) is still in development and has been endorsed by Greater Manchester’s walking and cycling commissioner, Chris Boardman. We are now working with the countryside charity, CPRE, on a large-scale funding bid to support the GM Ringway and on other greenbelt-related activities across the North West.
In addition, we have a close relationship with GM Moving, a national pilot funded by Sport England and Greater Manchester Combined Authority to increase physical activity across the city region. Recently, for example, we worked with their team on the GM Walking website, which lists over 200 walking routes and tens of walking groups around Greater Manchester.
Lots of other exciting developments are underway, including a joint project with walking app developer Go Jauntly to promote short walking routes in areas of Greater Manchester that face social and health challenges.
With everything that’s going on around active travel and natural capital in Greater Manchester at the moment, it’s a very exciting time.
What effect do you think the COVID-19 crisis will have on active travel?
Potentially it’s a real game changer. During lockdown more people than ever before have seen the benefits of walking and accessing their local green spaces. People have been exploring their neighbourhoods more and we’ve seen real benefits in terms of air pollution, noise pollution and physical activity. Walking is now seen as the main recreational activity by about 60 per cent of people, according to Sport England.
In other ways, we’re on a bit of a knife edge and could go in one of two directions. On the one hand, city region mayors like Andy Burnham are calling for more investment in active travel as part of the economic recovery effort. There are some big plans being put in place to increase walking and cycling in cities across the world, from Milan to Paris and New York to Mexico City. But on the other hand, we’re likely to see a rise in car use in the short-term – surveys already show that a large proportion of people will be avoiding public transport, at least in the near future. Active travel will therefore be more important than it’s ever been.
Another crucial theme running through this crisis is that it’s been a very unequal picture. People are walking more than ever, but those living in more deprived areas, as well as people with a disability or long-term health condition, are less likely to benefit from regular physical activity. This is a very important part of our mission so it’s an area we’re keen to work on further.
I found the Hub’s Switched On masterclasses really valuable. It surprised me to discover just how many established businesses there are in this sector in Greater Manchester, and it was great to make new contacts – some of whom I’m already talking to about possible collaborations.Dr Andrew Read, Founder
If you had one message for Greater Manchester businesses, what would it be?
Although the social impact achieved by Walking Projects Plus in public sector projects is crucial, we also believe there’s real potential in our work with the private sector and other clients. For example, ensuring the physical and mental wellbeing of employees is really beneficial for businesses, as is protecting and promoting their local environment and demonstrating CSR. Investing in walking and active travel can meet all of those needs, whether that’s identifying the best routes for walking or cycling to work, developing recreational walking routes for local attractions and hospitality providers, or organising team-building or fundraising walks.
Something I’m a big advocate of is ‘netwalking’ – basically, networking while walking in the open air. Here in Greater Manchester, we’re collaborating with a fantastic organisation called Freshwalks, which brings business people together on both city walks and hikes in the countryside. As we move on from the current stage of the Covid-19 crisis, I think people will find this kind of activity more attractive than ever. Come and join us!
How has GC Business Growth Hub helped you on your journey so far?
I found the Hub’s Switched On masterclasses really valuable. It surprised me to discover just how many established businesses there are in this sector in Greater Manchester, and it was great to make new contacts – some of whom I’m already talking to about possible collaborations. Having a team of advisors on hand with a specialist background in the environmental field is also a very useful resource to call upon when I need to!
Final question: Where are your favourite walking spots in Greater Manchester?
Good question! Developing the GM Ringway trail has helped me discover some beautiful locations for walking in surprising areas. There is some great walking in Haigh Country Park near Wigan town centre. In Stockport, one of my very favourite places is Mellor Moor near Marple, which has stunning views over the Peak District. Up in Bury, a little-known spot to the north of the town centre is Redisher Wood – absolutely gorgeous. During the lockdown, I’ve also found some lovely new green spaces I can walk to from central Manchester, along the Rivers Irk and Medlock to the east of the city. If anyone wants recommendations for walking routes close to where they live and work, they’re welcome to get in touch!