Healthy urban mobility through mural painting

Dr Juliet Carpenter, a GCHU Research Fellow explores the concept of Healthy Urban Mobility through a local project based in the Oxford neighbourhood of Barton.

A key motivation for healthy urban mobility is the existence of a welcoming environment for active modes of travel, such as walking and wheeling. Dr Juliet Carpenter, a GCHU Research Fellow, has been involved in a project addressing that challenge, based in the Oxford neighbourhood of Barton. 

The Healthy Urban Mobility project, led by Oxford Brookes University (2017-2019), aimed to understand the impact of everyday (im)mobility on health and wellbeing. Researchers explored participatory mobilities methods with Barton residents, to develop solutions for healthy urban mobility with the local community.

Barton is located on the edge of the city of Oxford and is one of the 20% most deprived neighbourhoods in England, with significantly lower healthy life expectancy than the rest of the city and the country.  

What is healthy urban mobility?

Healthy urban mobility is understood as a key component in increasing healthy life expectancy, by providing opportunities for people to move around the neighbourhood in ways that provide the body with moderate-intensity exercise.  However, there are a number of constraints people may encounter. In Barton, one of the critical barriers to walking and wheeling was the poor state of the underpasses under the ring road, which link the neighbourhood to nearby Headington. A key recommendation of the research was better design and maintenance of the underpasses, including the design of a mural to create a friendlier gateway to Barton.

A local approach

Two years later, delayed but not thwarted by the pandemic, that mural is now in place, adorning the walls of the underpass under the Northway ring road, joining Barton Road in Headington with Barton Village Road. Led by community activist, Katy Cockram, a Trustee of Barton Community Association, a partnership came together of local stakeholders, including City and County councillors, ODS (the social enterprise Oxford Direct Services Ltd), artists associated with Fusion Arts, the residents’ association Headington Action, and the cycle campaigning group Cyclox, who all contributed to planning, funding and designing the Barton Underpass Mural Project (BUMP).

The mural itself was designed with the help of the local community, who contributed to the consultation pre-pandemic, that fed in ideas for elements they’d like to see represented in the final design. In addition, during the painting, local residents also helped the artists Tommy Watkins and Lisa Curtis add to the mural as it took shape over a number of weeks. 

The initial effect on underpass users was certainly positive: “It was no exaggeration, in my entire life and career as an artist, I’ve never been on one project where so many people had such an immediate, positive and appreciative reaction, saying, ‘What you’re doing here is great, we thank you so much’ ” (Tommy Watkins, artist).

The immediate reactions to the mural have been positive. As the Town and Country Planning Association’s (TCPA) recent work on art and planning illustrates, art in the public realm has an important role to play in generating collective wellbeing and a sense of place and belonging. Sustrans also campaigns around the links between public art and active travel. As for any longer-term impacts on healthy urban mobility for residents in Barton, time will tell whether the initial positive responses to the Barton mural will lead to more active travel patterns and healthier living for local residents.