Today's episode is all about the value of inland waterways.
My guest today is 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.
She's also a trustee of the Inland Waterways Association. We talked about how social and environmental values of waterways can be measured and brought into policy.
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So it's using the data that you've got to tell good stories about for benefits.
We have a huge urban population 3/4 of that population lives within a kilometre of a of a waterway.
What is the ecological value? You know, what's the recreational money? What's the future value? Not just how we use it now, but how could this Patch of inventories waterway be used in the future?
That's Nickea S Harvey and this is the cost of everything podcast.
Today's episode is all about the value of inland waterways, a topic which is a central part of my day-to-day work. My guest today is Nikki's Harvey. Nikki is a senior lecturer at Birmingham City University and a member of the VCU Water Environment and Communities Research Group. She's also a trustee of the Inland Waterways Association.
We talked about some of the values of inland waterways, and particularly how social and environmental values of waterways can be measured and brought into policy.
Well, thank you for joining me. Really appreciate you coming on to talk about those. Your value talk about policy making and talk about environmental value as well. So I thought we would get started by talking a bit about your background. So, so how did you get into environmental social value?
I was involved in environmental impact assessment when I worked in consultancy. We were looking at it. It's meant to be a fairly scientific process. But it was going to tell you a story about one night that I was doing them some Newt surveys of all things down the canal in Burton on Trent. I was managing an environmental impact assessment.
One of those things we had to do, along with noise or heritage assessment was a Ecological assessment so I was walking, walking down a canal with our ecologists. I was there as a health and safety person, 'cause it was 10:30 at night. And as she was walking down, she was sniffing something good. But I think there's a Fox he or she was 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 wharfs 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 of where I went, so ultimately a couple of years later I I left and started a PhD. Looking at changing values of water, changing values of River and in the waterways, and particularly urban waterways.
And I'm a A trustee of the Inland Waterways Association, which is an organization that that evolved in the 1940s to fight for the preservation and use of the inland waterways being the waterways. This was another area of an asset that has changed use, so my area is back. Changing those changing.
This is it is changed from being a transport asset being neglected and there were people who did not want that closed down because there are other uses that tourism and leisure uses. There are other values to SoC and two towns and cities of having those waterways within them, so the inland waterways had a role within. So the waterway environment of fighting for the fighting for waterways to have a have a place. There are different from canal and River trust and under trust.
A lot of the waterways within England, Wales in the waterways deal with all navigational authorities so as well as the canal and River Trust's waterways. You have environment agencies. You have things like the River Avon trust. You had lots of smaller ones, so we're dealing with all of those different waterways and navigational authorities. But
Particularly with navigations, as opposed to just water your books, rivers, etc. Not so much, but it's navigates navigable waterways and potentially applicable waterways. Because that's sometimes the the future of a waterway that can bring its own value. You don't actually have to have the water there, but you're bringing communities together with a common purpose, so the if you look at canal restoration, such as the Droitwich Canal or the possible canal, the ones that have been completed, such as Huddersfield Narrow. We take those for granted nowadays, but those are only there because groups of people thought.
To keep them and that was there, it was a community value, a community focus for many, many years coming together to dig out locks to put together funding bids to try and get people interested to lobby politicians and all of that process is about trying to sell the value of those waterways too.
To people who may, may or may not be interested in the details of it, but they want to look at the the principles but also stretch stage by stage.
The fact that you're getting people together. You're outside in Exeter, having exercise outside your learning new skills. You're getting people talking to each other on a usually on a local level about what's going on in there area. Lot of these restoration works had brought back some of the heritage skills and so all of these things are. They have their own values. They're very very difficult to measure. We measure them by things like volunteer hours. It's a. It's a very imperfect metric. It's how much time are people. But again, you can value things by the surveys on perceptions, or how much people would pay to go to a certain area of waterway. Again, it can only be a comparison, but it's it's. You can't put money on it.
I think one of the interesting things about you know what you've been talking about there is is almost this evolution. This you know where you sit in terms of re purposing of these structures, and obviously 200 years ago they wouldn't be in heritage 'cause they would. They were built for a purpose. And then you know, like you said, they fell into disrepair.
And it was only through local communities banding together, hobbyists, boaters, people who had, you know, an affinity for their local area and through their hard work and and the way that they valued it to restore these structures an even now considering. Not just the heritage value, which is which is significant, but the ecological value an now as we move wearing this lock down and a lot of people have discovered the waterways is places where there you know of serenity really of getting taking into consideration health and well being. These are all different values. That was a question that I was going to ask you, but you mentioned it in the little comment right at the end there which is you can't.
You might not be able to monetize these values, so how? How do you encourage decision-making? You know a policy level. You know with government to promote those aspects.
It's difficult to monetize the value of your me walking down the towpath and enjoying the obvious. We're getting out of our flat onto another towpath. 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. Because people are discovering them as leisure. Resource is there's work being done on green space 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 that we city heart problems to the NHS. If people are getting X amount of exercise walking in green space. There is some link to reduced physical and mental health, and if you take that one step further.
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. I think a really strong argument.
What the canal and river trust trusted done with the the movement counters etc that the economics team have done is trying to measure how many people are working and then you can start making those links so it is very very complex. Now when you look at a lot of urban areas around the world the water is one of those fundamental things for life.
You either have to have a water supply that you grow your Oasis, your town grows, or you have a town that grows as a fortification on the end of a River. You might have a deep water port, such as in London. With that, there was a reason for developing an area of urban area there. So food, water, defence and increase it. Which transport of goods with the reasons for having urban areas and valuing water. So urban areas were facing the water, you had to go down to actual water from the River. It also meant that you value your water because if you had to drink from it, you don't pollute it and you can see the the connection with the increase, especially in the UK of public health and piped water, the idea about public health and having water supplies to homes and to local areas weirdly turned people away from their their water had been used as drinking water supply is it being used for industry for powering factories? Once you started having things like clean streets and rinsing water off, you started printing water downhill and all the effort would just go into the into the River and then rivers became nasty, horrible places that you didn't want to be near through.
Especially so the 80s of seeing the potential in water and you look around the world. And there are waterfront developments everywhere, so the larger waterways in Europe, some of the transportation, waterways, and how can we use them for measure for tourism, but also for other things like flood alleviation. If you look at some of the projects in Glasgow, some of the canals there not. I will use for tourism. Very well used for Urban Development so people are looking over the waterway. It's an aesthetic asset, but they're also used as a cloud storage. So when there are floods, the canal can take that. Take that overflow so there are lots of added values of those having those patches of water within cities, and those have slowly come to the fore, we started thinking about leisure and tourism.
But it's increasingly become this idea about well being within the cities. 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. And as I said Lockdown this past year has been a a boon because people are discovering these local assets which were previously neglected. Wow, this is wonderful wildlife corridor. They are corridors and they are semi secret worlds as well. Somebody once said to me stepping through a doorway onto an urban waterway is the closest thing in real life to stepping through the back of the wardrobe.
You could step off a busy St and you you walk down often. What's it 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 always networks of waterways where wildlife can travel strangely people say hello to each other on the towpath hello to each.
Oh yeah, yeah definitely. I've experienced that in quite a few areas where I've wondered down on to the cut and when you go down and this is The thing is that journey that you're stepping from this one level to a different level. As soon as you start walking down the canals along the towpath you are in this completely different world.
There's a, you know, an area which is. previously, part of the Industrial Revolution is the Black Country. And there's now, you know, a nature reserve there. There's now you know you see birds. You don't hear the traffic down there. The cyclist going past to say hello. There's people walking past, saying good morning, you see that you see the boat are going past and you have a quick word with the voter and it's a massively different environment, it is this kind of situation where we've we're all now, I guess different to to when the Industrial Revolution started and when the canals were first built up. The majority of the population are in urban centres. Now the view of a green spaces or is it does have a value too?
But how can we be more systematic in how we assess these values in order to expand the resource or to protect the natural environment that's built around it and promote that natural environment so you know obviously not just traditionally from the structures and make sure the structures are OK, but there's a lot of you know. Lots of ecology and you know that. So how do you take all those various values and then systematically approach how government or how policymakers should you should 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 you know people's feelings and opinions and values 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. But the people who use that or not.
Paying the cost to a towpath user doesn't actually pay, so it does require centralized funding for the for the common good in order to persuade policymakers that that common good is worthwhile, you have the evidence, but what you really need. I said 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. To this the hearts and minds of policymakers, because it's 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'm hoping somebody will notice, so it's that storytelling aspect and some of that is about using it. I know that those discussions about when you research to try and get people's perceptions on whether they want green screen water fronts or built up in waterfront. You can get people's preferences and you can take that across certain different areas.
But you are, you really looking at it on a case study basis, so I can't offer the magic bullet.To measure all of this stuff, because it is very difficult to measure because it's 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 this year but using their local waterways. It's a fantastic opportunity. How it's made? How are those urban waterways in particular making a difference to people's lives? And potentially following through with Absolute will. So will they become more involved, or once the gyms reopened or they just never go again. I suspect that people will still come.
Like you say, the numbers, even if you have the numbers, they only tell part of the story and you need that supporting story to be able to inform people who are making decisions on this because it is invariably is a matter what project you do. It has a quantitative impact that you can measure. But it also has that qualitative impact that isn't measurable, so you it's a really important point, really.
At the moment we are going through what's called, You know, the new normal. We're starting to develop this idea of what the new normal might be. There's buzzwords out there like build back better. There's a green agenda. There's health and well being. There's no complete uprooting of what we traditionally consider is what is normal? Where do you think waterways or inland waterways? The built environment? Where does that fit in to that new normal and what do you think will be happening in these urban heartlands? More.
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 bemoaning not being able to fly to Spain or go on holiday to Thailand as their leisure or go to the gym or all of these things that cost money and are discovering the free local gym that is a canal. I think it's wonderful, but people are discovering this and I'm seeing people on the canal who I wouldn't normally have seen who are discovering this at green space. But this is the I think this is the very the real value of them as a low in this new normal.
If we're looking towards localism, we're looking towards creating local communities local resource. Since local leisure assets we're looking towards moving, improving local health outcomes. 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.
I'm going to give you another example of a project in Wolverhampton which is in a very small way has done this. There was a derelict war. And it was taken on by a group of residential Moors who wanted to develop their own community, moorings and a group called Urban Moorings now where they were on the canal. There's been a lot of antisocial behavior. Opposite there was some derelict factories which will become flats one day. That canal towpath is a natural fruit, but people weren't using it be cause of the antisocial behavior 'cause it felt very closed in and you don't really want to walk down if you're isolated now. As soon as the boats moved in and the wave every morning, they hire guys to the people who were on the other side. The antisocial behavior moved away.
And people started booking their kids to school and back along the towpath and suddenly basically the natural surveillance of that boat yard has opened up an area to path that it's opposite. It's unconnected with their boat yard, so they've been part of the regeneration and the the revitalization of that area of canal by living there. A lot of hours and all quite isolated and, as a woman on my own, I 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. Get along with families who can walk around with a pram without getting it stuck in the mud. Those aspects are, you create leisure assets.
But a safe and safe and accessible, and that's bringing the waterways as part of the part of the city. Because it's so even if canal is, it's got some litter in it. It might be a bit scruffy. It's still much nicer than walking along a city street to get your exercise.
For me there's a lot that can be learned from how these urban projects have been developed, and I think part of what you're telling me is. It's not just looking at the numbers, there's a. There's a wider impact, and that wider in. It's not necessarily about measuring, it's about amplifying the voices of those people who are affected by it and understanding. Sort of the mechanisms that exist to sort of enable that that voice to be heard by the decision makers. That doesn't always come out when you have a business case or a specific policy sometimes.
I think I've taken up quite a bit of time. So what is your one takeaway message that you want to give to the listener?
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 how is it got development value? What is the ecological value? You know what's the recreational value? What's the future value? Not just how we're using it now, but how could this patch of water is waterway be used in the future because that that is one of the key things when we're looking at value. 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.
Well, thank you again for for joining me on the show Nikki, it's been a really interesting episode considering obviously waterways are very close to my heart and and the decisions we make around the legacy that they'll have and and how we impact on society through the decisions we're making.
It's been a really interesting chat, so thank you.
I hope you enjoyed that guys. I've only really been aware of the health benefits of walking down the canal towpath. In recent years and during the Covid lockdown, I had more friends and family say that they started to use the canals for their daily exercise. I guess the big thing for me is the impact that a personal story or the community has in policy making. You have to tell the story an individual.
A group or community can have a massive impact on the next episode. I conclude my review of the high quality. Until then, stay safe and have a great week