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The Social Value of the Waterways

Urban waterways are effectively a local park, a local nature reserve. They provide a leisure asset that’s really close to home for millions and millions of people across the country.

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In this episode (listen here) I discuss the social value of inland waterways with Nicki S Harvey. Nicki is a senior lecturer at Birmingham City University and a member of the BCU Water, Environment and Communities Research Group investigating areas such as how communities use water right through to the technological water and flood management.

…stepping through a doorway onto an urban waterway is the closest thing in real life to stepping through the back of the wardrobe.

How did you get into environmental social value? 

I was involved in environmental impact assessment when I worked in consultancy. One night that I was doing a Newt survey down the canal in Burton on Trent.

One of those things we had to do, along with noise or heritage assessment was a Ecological assessment so I was walking with our ecologists. It was 10:30 at night. She was walking down, sniffing something saying “I think there’s a Fox”, looking at a particular plant and noticing that.

Whereas my background is very much in industrial heritage and tourism management and I’ve got a longstanding interest in the waterways, and I was looking at this can. I was looking at potential transport infrastructure, and it was that moment that I realized that we all have totally different values and we were walking down the same pathway.

But we were in totally different worlds and that changed the direction of where I went, so ultimately a couple of years later I left and started a PhD. Looking at changing values of water, changing values of River and in the waterways, and particularly urban waterways. 

How do you encourage decision-making at a policy level for environmental value?

It’s difficult to monetize the value of your me walking down the towpath and enjoying the ambience. There’s a lot of work being done on taking the wider perspective on on value.

If you look at the lock down at the moment it’s almost a gift to the argument that Canal and River trust on the Inner Waterways Association had been making about the value of waterways. People are discovering them as leisure. There’s work being done on the value of green spaces and parks on things like that and trying to link that towards health benefits. 

Because if you think about the cost of mental health to the NHS. If you think about the cost of diabetes. If people are getting X amount of exercise walking in green space, there is some link to reduced physical and mental health problems. 

If you’re going to increase people’s physical and mental health by a certain measurable amount, then you will also reduce the NHS cost of treating that by a certain amount, so they’re very tenuous links, but they’re starting to be made, which I think is very, very interesting.   

We have a huge urban population. 3/4 of Britain’s population lives within a kilometre of of a waterway, and we have these amazing assets. People are discovering these local assets which were previously neglected. Wow, this is wonderful wildlife corridor.

The floating cinema (Image from the Canal and River Trust)

They are corridors and they are semi secret worlds as well. You could step off a busy street and you walk down. What is just a doorway in a brick wall and suddenly you are in this area and there’s a silence about the water. You’ve got a lot of greenery. It’s a nature corridor because you think you have networks of waterways where wildlife can travel. And, strangely people say hello to each other on the towpath.

Can we systematically approach how policymakers view these values? 

We talk about evidence based policy and we talk about systematic analysis of evidence in order to create policy. But in reality, policy is made based on people’s feelings and opinions and their own personal values, and so the evidence will only support or refute those.

Rather than change minds, having those financial values about health, I think is incredibly useful because you’re tying it to something that is funded by government and what the waterways need is funded by government. They are what’s known as a public good, which means everybody can access.  

“…what you really need, before the evidence is actually the storytelling, so it’s using the data that you’ve got to tell good stories about the benefits.”

So it’s using using narrative using storytelling, it’s finding the right people with the right influence who can make stuff happen as opposed to creating lots and lots of evidence. 

I can’t offer the magic bullet, to measure all of this stuff, because it is very difficult to measure that social value, environmental value, it often gets forgotten then.

So the for me, the way of getting it on the agenda on the policymakers agenda to be considered, not even to be made decisions on, but to be considered is telling those stories, abut the value and the value that people are finding using their local waterways.

Where do you think inland waterways fit in to the new normal? 

Urban waterways are effectively a local park, a local nature reserve. They provide a leisure asset that’s really close to home for millions and millions of people across the country.

There are many people who are discovering the free local gym that is a canal. I think it’s wonderful, and I’m seeing people on the canal who I wouldn’t normally have seen who are discovering this at green space. This is the real value of them in this new normal. 

If we’re looking towards localism, we’re looking towards creating local communities, local resource. Investing in local urban waterways in what are often very very deprived areas that these canals go through, encouraging the use of those, I think it’s going to be a big win. 

Water voles are protected and are found frequently on the waterways (Image from the Canal and River Trust)

As a woman, on my own, I feel very wary about walking down some isolated areas. All you need is to encourage a little bit of residential boating, some canalside activities, improving the surfacing of those canals so they are easier to get along with families who can walk around with a pram without getting it stuck in the mud.

You create leisure assets that are and accessible, and that’s bringing the waterways as part of the part of the city. Even if the canal is a bit scruffy. It’s still much nicer than walking along a city street to get your exercise. 

What is your takeaway message? 

I would say when you are looking at a patch of water, try and imagine how many different perspectives there can be on that water. Look at it not from what you’re using it for, but its development value.

What is the ecological value? What’s the recreational value? What’s the future value? Not just how we’re using it now, but how could this waterway be used in the future.

Archimedes screw hydropower (image from the Canal and River Trust)

We think about that now, but when we take the ecosystem services type approach, we’re looking at the option value or the legacy value. The future values of some of our heritage and natural assets. 

So look at it the different perspectives, because the more we know about who might use that water, who values it, and how the better decisions we can make because we can at least take those things into consideration when we’re making decisions about water. 

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