Harnessing Sustainability: Legibility and Ownership in the Promotion of Walking in Wales

This is the Ph.D thesis I completed in 2014. It’s about walking, the state, how things get defined by the state, and by people, and how those definitions don’t necessarily line up. It’s also about what people do when they make something ‘theirs’.

The research for the thesis incorporated research and evaluation of the Wales-wide Let’s Walk Cymru ‘Walking for Health’ programme, which was led and managed by Sport Wales (formerly the Sports Council for Wales), which also funded most of this research.

It is a piece of academic writing that I put an awful lot of my own effort and well-being into, that I researched and wrote for a specific purpose. It’s academic and technical, but I’ve tried to make sure it conveys some of the richly human nature of the research I carried out, with walking groups in all corners of Wales between 2008 and 2011.

Abstract

Let’s Walk Cymru is a Welsh Government-funded scheme designed to improve the health and wellbeing of the Welsh public by increasing levels of participation in recreational walking. Although a successful programme of led walks which ran between 2007 and 2012, the scheme’s coordinators found developing community ‘ownership’ and the promotion of more independent and ‘sustainable’ forms of walking to be a much more challenging prospect.

This thesis focuses on the informal and formal responses of project staff and walkers to this quest. It addresses this aim in two parts through a qualitative methodology utilising semi-structured interviews, walking interviews, participant observation and focus groups; which is designed to explore ‘what walking means’ to a range of informal and formal actors involved with the scheme. Part one explores how, to those to do it, walking is often associated with a variety of diverse meanings, associations, and purposes. These social and cultural alignments made by each walker influence how, and whether, they choose to walk. The thesis considers the relationship between the heterogeneous and diverse meanings and associations explored in part one and the more formalised and instrumental conceptions of walking, which are covered in part two. In this second part, the thesis considers the formal governance responses to the ‘sustainability objective’; which centre on the restructuring of the ‘delivery’ of walking in Let’s Walk Cymru along ‘flatter’ lines, based on partnership working principles. Despite their currency in government as a way of instating more ‘bottom-up’ and ‘community-owned’
forms of development and social practice, decentralising techniques such as partnership networks are no panacea for community ownership. The thesis attributes their failure in Let’s Walk Cymru to the fact that, although ostensibly decentralised, governance arrangements like these constitute their aims and priorities in characteristically objective and governmental, rather than in social terms in order to maintain ‘legibility’ of the social practices that they seek to facilitate. These approaches to social projects have a fraught relationship with the kinds of ‘sustainable’ and ‘community-owned’ forms of social practice which they are often tasked with achieving. The thesis proposes a more radical approach to social improvement schemes like Let’s Walk Cymru: one based not on a decentralisation of ‘delivery’; but of knowledge production and dissemination. The thesis concludes by summarising the recommendations made to Sport Wales on the use of this method to help facilitate the
development of more ‘sustainable’ and community-owned forms of social practice.