My PhD project is co-funded by Waterford Institute of Technology and Get Ireland Walking. Get Ireland Walking are a national initiative working to maximise the amount of people who walk on the island of Ireland. A major focus of Get Ireland Walking’s annual work, specifically given the publication of their new Strategy and Action Plan, is to understand the core components of the walking system at a county level. Given this focus of the funders of the project, the direction in which my PhD takes aims to align with Get Ireland Walking’s specific objectives and to understand these core components using a combination of methodologies and research designs. This PhD is a ‘real world’ project, involving many interacting systems and system actors, which ultimately requires the direction of the research to be malleable.
The first study of the PhD aimed to understand the system of walking at a county level in Ireland according to the system actors who worked within it. In order to do this, a systems map for walking in one county was developed alongside researchers, policymakers, practitioners and all of those who had a relevant stake in the system of walking within that county in June 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, systems mapping workshops were required to be held online and supplementary interviews were conducted with system actors to gain a deeper understanding of the system. The outcomes of this project were that 19 tangible ‘solutions’ to problems within the system were identified which were categorised under two leverage points (data and evidence and inter/intra organisational communication). Although this study provided an understanding of the system and the various interdependent factors that contribute to the systems’ outcome, it did not provide in-depth information on how the network of organisations (system actors) work together within the walking system. Furthermore, the leverage point concerned with the use of and collection of data and evidence within the walking system was also used to direct proceeding work.
In March 2021, a partnership evaluation study was conducted in order to gain an understanding of how the organisations within a walking system (Get Ireland Walking’s national network) perceive and experience the partnership that they work in. Data collection for this study has begun and a questionnaire probing the partnership experiences of approximately 30 organisations under 5 domains (governance, collaboration, leadership, experiences of partnership, resources). Social network analysis will also be conducted to determine the key players within the network. Data will be collected at a second timepoint in March 2022 to determine changes in the structure of the network and experiences of partners following 12 months of strategy implementation. In order to explore potential solutions to the data and evidence leverage point from study 1, footfall counter data from 33 recreational sites were collated with mobility data i.e., Google Community Mobility Reports, to help explore the utility of collating multiple datasets for system actors when gathering information relating to walking levels. An article has been submitted to the Journal of Outdoor Recreation which focusses on the trends in recreational trail usage throughout the COVID-19 pandemic period. Results show that there has been a sustained increase in trail usage in Ireland since the COVID-19 outbreak and plans for future work aim to unpack the determinants of trail use from the perspective of park managers and trail users.
Overall, this PhD project aims to collate data and information from a myriad of sources in order to understand the core components of the system of walking at a county level. These findings and recommendations are intended to be compiled and collated into a practical toolkit for local walking systems to approach walking promotion holistically and from a whole-of-systems perspective. The anticipated finish date for the PhD is August 2023.