Take back our streets!
A woman out walking the dogs in Zoo Lake, Joburg’s iconic park; a woman getting some exercise, packing in some of the many physical and mental benefits of bodily activity… and suddenly she is overwhelmed, dragged into the bushes, brutally raped.
Terry Oakley-Smith’s brave account of what happened to her in 2015 aired in August on eNCA. It must have sent a chill through the hearts of every active woman who watched it (and not a few men, too); anyone whose exercise takes them into a public space would have needed to take a deep breath and speak firmly to themselves before putting on their running or cycling shoes again.
And that’s sad, because research shows that exercise that happens outdoors has some special benefits:
It feels less strenuous – you’re more focused on where you are and what’s around you, from the ground beneath your feet to the sky above, so you don’t notice that you’re tiring.
Wind (or water) resistance and uneven terrain can make an exercise session more demanding and push your body more, but grass and sand reduce the risk of injury.
It reduces stress – heart rates, blood pressure, levels of the stress hormone cortisol and other health markers improve when people are exposed to greenery and fresh air, even in a city park. Yes, even exercising in less-than-fresh city air is good for you!
Those who exercise outdoors are more likely to stick to their exercise and benefit long-term.
Terry Oakley-Smith’s powerful story is the perfect illustration of why this year, the theme of National Physiotherapy BackWeek (4-8 September 2017) is: Free to be active – take back our streets.“As physiotherapists, we know that exercise is the essential prescription for something like 90% of our ills – it will have a beneficial impact on anything from arthritis to cancer to depression to heart disease and more,” says Dr Ina Diener, president of the South African Society of Physiotherapy (SASP). “But for many people in South Africa today, the most affordable and accessible forms of exercise, like walking and running or getting up an informal game of soccer in a public open space, are touched with a small sense of fear, because of the dangers we run on roads or parks.”Just a few months ago, one of South Africa’s running legends, Bruce Fordyce, was mugged while running, and his shoes were taken. Hikers and cyclists are often mugged on Table Mountain. Commuters walking to taxi ranks and train stations are also at risk.“We call on all South Africans to come together and campaign for safer streets and public open spaces, for our health and the health of our children,” says Dr Diener. “We ask our Minister of Police, Fikile Mbalula, and all commanding officers of the South African Police Service, to make a firm public commitment to guarding open spaces and routes people use for walking, running and cycling, not just during famous events like Comrades or the 94.7, but every day. No South African should ever experience what Terry Oakley-Smith did, just because they wanted to take a walk. Let’s take back our streets and parks!”
SA Society of Physiotherapy calls for better protection for walkers and runners
Did you know that, in the City of Johannesburg, you should not plant shrubs and bushes in front of your house on the pavement? It’s true. In terms of the by-laws, “No person may plant or cause to be planted, any tree, shrub or other plant on any public road or any sidewalk, footway or road reserve forming part thereof, which obstructs or interferes with pedestrian traffic on such sidewalk, footway or road reserve or allow any such tree, shrub or plant to remain on that sidewalk, footway or road reserve.”
Why? Because it’s dangerous for walkers to walk in the road itself. Plants filling up the pavement force walkers to step onto the tar, possibly into the path of vehicle traffic. But this by-law is seldom, if ever, enforced.
“People walking or running, using their legs to move around, are not less important than drivers,” says Dr Ina Diener, president of the South African Society of Physiotherapy (SASP). “They should be protected by our metropolitan police with as much attention as vehicle drivers receive – if not more, because they are more vulnerable.”
A walker or runner is not likely to survive an encounter with a vehicle made of metal – which explains why more than half the deaths on our roads are pedestrian deaths. And yet some 2.9 million workers walk to work, and 12.7 million learners walk to school every day.
The SASP, she adds, would like to see the municipal and traffic authorities take positive action to protect those who walk and run:
Ensure pavements are safe for foot traffic.
Not only should there be a clear area free of shrubs and trees, but pavements should also be clear of debris that could trip pedestrians; all manhole covers should be checked regularly.
Ensure that pedestrian crossings are well marked and policed.
Traffic police should enforce zebra crossings and ‘little green men’ by fining vehicles which ignore them.
Allocate officers to sites where pedestrians and vehicles coincide.
Schools, taxi ranks and routes that feed pedestrians to and from large businesses and factories should have officers on duty to ensure safety during key periods of the day.
Plan new roads to include provisions for foot traffic.
Pedestrian bridges are not the only solution; plan to create an easy flow for those walking and running, prioritising them.
Initiate special projects to protect foot passengers.
Muggings of people afoot are common – whether those are commuters making their way to the train station or runners getting their exercise. Hotspots could be the subject of special task forces, with their own helplines.“If people feel safe to walk or run, this is serving the country’s long-term goals in terms of both carbon emissions (more non-motorised transport is what is needed in the fight against climate change), and health,” says Dr Diener. “Our Department of Health is fighting a battle against non-communicable diseases, such as cardiovascular illness and diabetes, which threaten to swamp our health services as the numbers rise. Exercise is a crucial weapon in this battle: the more South Africans move, the better their health will be.” All physiotherapists prescribe exercise to help with existing physical problems and stave off future ones.
“During National Physiotherapy BackWeek from 4-8 September this year, we call on all South Africans to come together and fight for safer streets and public open spaces, for our health and the health of our children,” says Dr Diener. “We ask our Minister of Police, Fikile Mbalula, all commanding officers of the South African Police Service, and our traffic officers, to make a firm public commitment to guarding open spaces and routes people use for walking, running and cycling, every day. Let’s take back our streets and parks!”
Aurthor Take Back Our Streets: PhysioSA communications and marketing team
Author Safer Streets: Janine Viljoen