Rural Tasmanian communities using citizen science to improve health and wellbeing

  • Costal walking path with tourist map
  • Rural street with pedestrian sign
  • Park bench by a lake on a cloudy mist day

Examples of both wonderful and poor walkability

Associate Professor Verity Cleland
Associate Professor, Menzies Institute for Medical Research, University of Tasmania

In a twist on traditional research, rural Tasmanians have donned their metaphoric lab coats and become the scientists in a project to improve community health and wellbeing. One hundred and seventeen young people and adults from 11 small rural towns (200 – 6000 residents) have collected data on how easy or hard it is to walk around their town.

Being regularly active is important for health and wellbeing – it can help to prevent heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and mental health conditions. But sometimes the environments where people live, work, play, and age aren’t supportive of activities like walking – which can make it hard for communities to be active. The ‘walkability’ of an area is known to impact walking and physical activity in city-dwellers, but little is known about walkability in rural communities.

In this project, citizen scientists studied 1-1.5km street segments by logging information about footpaths, traffic, amenities, and services, and taking photographs. Researchers presented the data back to the community at local workshops, who identified priority issues and proposed potential solutions.

Researchers compiled the information from the audits and workshops into a town report – as requested by community members – which was reviewed by the citizen scientists to ensure it captured their lived experience. Citizen scientists were encouraged to advocate for changes to their community by contacting their local council, engaging media, or holding community meetings.

The main issue identified by citizen scientists was road safety. Traffic was a major concern, with traffic speed, increased traffic at different times, and lack of safe road crossings impacting walkability. One participant noted ‘There is no footpath and only a thin gravel verge at the edge of the cliff. It is very dangerous and difficult to see oncoming traffic’ while another commented ‘the motorised vehicles, sometimes they just tear along … like they’re trying to tear up a new trail’. In some cases, safety was such a concern that people had moved away: “There was a woman…She had to leave. Her eyesight deteriorated and she was told that she shouldn’t walk along the road to get to the bus. She didn’t have her own car, couldn’t drive, but was told it wasn’t safe for her to walk to the bus. She actually had to move out.’

Footpaths and trails were often poorly maintained, negatively impacting the community’s ability to walk to and from places and further compounded by poor lighting, especially in winter. One citizen scientist noted ‘It’s also really dangerous walking from the bus if you’re commuting from town all through the winter when it gets dark and you’re walking along that road in the dark, there are potholes on the side of the road’. A lack of signage and connecting footpaths to other sections of path made it especially difficult for those with limited mobility, with one citizen scientist noting: ‘Ending the track you reach a sealed road. Once again, no footpaths so you are walking into traffic’.

Many simple solutions were suggested by communities, including reduced speed limits, safer road crossings, improved signage, walking amenities, and better footpaths. As one citizen scientist suggested ‘There are improvements that could be made to this section of road to make it more walkable. Some SLOW signs, or a lower speed-limit. Road repairs, and a designated pedestrian footpath. Trees for shade.’

All rural community members should have the right to feel safe when walking. Engaging citizens as scientists has been a powerful way to hear the voices of rural communities. Governments and decision-makers in these towns now have the information needed to make changes to better support their community to live healthy, more active lives.

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