Written by Matt Roebuck, Healthy Place Shaping Partner, Active Oxfordshire
It is a trope shared popularised by John. F. Kennedy, Lisa Simpson, and a whole lot of western motivational speakers.
Lisa: “Look on the bright side Dad, did you know that the Chinese use the same word for crisis as they do for opportunity?”
While this familiar saying may not be true, for those of us, who are ourselves, and our families in good health and relative security, this lockdown provides a break from the treadmill of business as usual.
In February, I moved to Oxford, to take up the role as Healthy Place Shaping Partner, with my wife and now ten-month-old daughter. My wife, who after maternity-leave, had been due to return to her London office-job but was now job-hunting. Of course, as the crisis took hold, the adverts dried up.
When I met my wife in Myanmar, she was working as a freelance journalist; her dream job, but not necessarily her dream income. When we moved to the U.K. and started a family, the time it would take to establish oneself in such a crowded marketplace seemed impractical.
Now in lockdown and accepting that a regular paycheck was not going to arrive anytime soon, but also that we were not going to be able to access childcare in the near future, she finally gave herself permission to redeploy her time toward the great ideas and projects that have sat in her notebook taking a back seat to the daily grind. Hopefully, it will create a new more satisfying future work-life balance for her and our family.
When the crisis hit, we started asking similar questions of ourselves at Active Oxfordshire. What is the future we would like to see, where do we see our role within it and who do we need to support to get there?
Having recently transferred from a hosted arrangement, into an independent charity, we had been working closely with partners such as Age UK Oxfordshire, Oxfordshire Mind and the Oxford Hub to establish ourselves as a reliable cog in the county’s third sector.
With our immediate future secure thanks to decisive and supportive action from Sport England, when the crisis hit, we took steps to pay-forward that support to the stakeholders we know are so important to the system within which we work. Staff members have been redeployed to support our partners work.
We acted this way, because it was the right thing to do, and because as our sector has been coming to realise over the last few years, if the system is not there, then we can achieve nothing on our own. We’ve been consistent in our approach, and been able to demonstrate our genuine willingness to chip in, play our part and hopefully that will create a more satisfying future for Active Oxfordshire where we play the role we want to play to support systems change.
Already, we’ve seen direct benefits that support our strategic purpose. Age UK Oxfordshire’s home calls to clients now include guidance on staying active at home, while the daily newsletter from Oxfordshire All In, the counties third sector COVID-19 response network including 500 organisations across the county highlights the resources on our website, our Support and Recovery service, or the Sport England’s crisis fund.
Giving yourself permission to innovate and iterate… at speed
Did you see, This Mum Runs, and their prescription delivery service in Bedminster, Bristol on the news or social media? I did, it seemed like a great idea, so I reached out and asked the organiser about how they’d achieved it, drew up some best practice documents based on that case study and took it to the Healthy Place Shaping team I’d been working with at Cherwell District Council. The council used their contacts with the Local Pharmaceutical Committee to adapt the process, it was signed off for the whole of Oxfordshire and after approaching local running and cycling clubs in Banbury and Bicester the scheme was up and running in less than a week. Before, the first prescription was on the doorstep, we were already talking to the Oxford Hub and GoodGym Oxford about how to adapt it to their local situation.
“Being involved in Oxfordshire Supply Runs is a win-win. Not only does it give us a way to support our community by delivering essential medication, it also allows us to do it on our bikes, doing something we love.”
Paul Dean, President of Banbury Star
A couple weeks later, deliveries of prescriptions to the vulnerable or ‘shielded’ are in their hundreds, Banbury Star Cycling Club are now a model of best practice promoted across the country by British Cycling and Active Oxfordshire through our close involvement with Oxfordshire All In, are supporting its adoption in our county’s other towns and villages.
Any other time, people would have been busy, we would have eventually pulled together a steering group of conflicted diaries to find an afternoon where we could meet in a common location, and then after that first meeting we’d have agreed another meeting a month henceforth. Instead, we saw an opportunity, got on a video call to support the right people with the information they needed to get it on the ground and learn through doing. Innovation, or adoption of best practice and iteration, or the adaptation to the local environment.
After that success, we became aware of the crisis response of the Windrush Bike Project in Witney. Day-to-day, they are a project that takes in donated bikes, refurbishes them before donating them to someone who needs it, or selling them on to fund the running of their projects. In Lockdown-mode, they were providing #Bikes4KeyWorkers and were being inundated to the point where they had already exhausted their supply solely through requests from West Oxfordshire, and could not begin to address the requests flooding in from the rest of the county.
Before the crisis hit, Active Oxfordshire had been planning to work with Windrush, Cyclox, the Oxford Hub and others to launch the Ready, Set, Go project that will see children from at-risk backgrounds being supported with the knowledge and the means to acquire the life-skills of swimming and cycling. Rather than lie dormant, by repurposing those networks, Active Oxfordshire and Cyclox have taken the case study from West Oxfordshire, and will this week deploy a similar scheme bringing together volunteers from across Oxford, learning and developing practice before hopefully extending to the remainder of the county. Not only will this see us support a worthy cause, the lessons we learn now, and the new relationships we forge will mean a stronger Ready, Steady, Go will emerge, supporting the future we want to see.
This replication of best practice hasn’t been about enforcing an idea from above or outside, its worked by identifying those good ideas and how they work, presenting them to those communities who could deliver them, and facilitating them to adapt them to their own circumstances by addressing localised barriers. Will we be able to continue to act like this in the future we want to see? I hope so.
What’s in your notebook that might be useful now?
On a built environment front, I’ve been increasingly interested in Tactical Urbanism. Also known as DIY Urbanism or Urban Prototyping, this approach provides a toolbox generally used to demonstrate solutions on our streets, gather feedback and engender support for long-term change. During the COVID-19 lockdown and, or during a potential gradual re-opening, could these approaches provide low-cost effective solutions to supporting active travel and liveable streets for the purposes of essential journeys and safe physical distancing?
The New Zealand government has formally adopted this approach, and invited cities to apply for 90% funding to widen sidewalks and carve out temporary cycleways to support the easing of lockdown restrictions.
The scaling up emergency provision of safe cycling routes, using cones or other temporary measures, has been shown to work from Bogota to Berlin and Budapest. Berlin has not only closed many roads to motor vehicles, it’s also published a guide on temporary cycle provision.
One thing for note though, is that in many of these places that have acted so quickly to address social distancing through tactical urbanist approaches, these represent expansions or repurposing of existing projects or proposals.
Bogota’s measures represent a ramping up of the Ciclovia, a weekly blocking off of 120km worth of streets to cars, for the benefit of cyclists, runners and skaters. In Vienna, they have ramped up delivery of their ‘encounter zones’, shared car and pedestrian space with a speed limit of 20km/h (12mph) and the recent announcements that Paris will deliver 650km of pop-up “corona cycleways” come from Mayor Hidalgo, a fierce proponent of the 15-minute neighbourhood, who on January 29, promised to make “Paris cyclist-friendly by removing 72% of its on-street car parking.”
The key will be, not to just push through an existing scheme, but to redevelop or redeploy such a scheme to address the public health needs of social distancing, that may be around in some form until the New Year, according to Chris Whitty.
A life-stage transition for an entire society.
When the government enacted lockdown, the whole of society went through a life-stage transition where one’s day-to-day reality was transformed overnight. The sport and physical activity sector responded quickly to this challenge with what the recent Sport England/COMRES research suggests is broadly positive results.
Here in Oxfordshire, the Families Active Sporting Together (FAST) initiative – part of the community activation branch of our Healthy Place Shaping approach – responded not only by producing daily YouTube videos to help families to stay fit, but by working with families to offer a ‘pick and mix’ service for parents and children, challenging them to choose a range of household objects for the Youth Activators to design a fun activity around.
While it may not be as immediate as the lockdown, the gradual removal of those restrictions will also represent a societal transition. The question to be asking now, is how should the sport and physical activity sector respond then to support the public health of the nation and support the future we envision?