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Canals: New National Health Service?


This week’s theme for the blog is mental health. During the Covid19 pandemic we realised how important a connection to the outdoors and nature is for our mental health. Spending time outdoors was one of the key factors that enabled so many people to cope with the stress of the pandemic.

45% people said visiting green spaces, such as parks, helped them to cope throughout the pandemic (Mental Health Foundation, 2021).

Research has shown that people with a good connectedness to the outdoors are less likely to suffer from mental health problems such as depression and anxiety (Mental Health Foundation, 2021) and are also more likely to have pro-environmental habits such as recycling and buying seasonal food. At a time of devastating environmental threats, stronger mutually supportive relationships between people and the environment are crucial.

However, although everyone is able to access the outdoors not everyone has access to high quality outdoor space. Proximity is certainly a factor in this, with many ex-industrial inner cities, for example, lacking space for expansive green parks.


The Original Arteries of the Industrial Revolution:



Over 200 years ago, our canal network was built to serve the transportation needs of the Industrial Revolution. The 2000 mile expanse of navigable waterways is one of the finest examples of living, working industrial heritage in the world.


Arteries of the Green Industrial Revolution:



The Green Industrial Revolution is a government plan that aims to rebuild the UK economy, after the damage of Covid19, through supporting new green jobs and industries predominantly in previous industrial regions such as Teeside, Merseyside and Mansfield (HM Government, 2020). It hopes the UK will become a world leader in green technology.

Canals have been hailed for their potential in this upcoming Green Industrial Revolution as they are ideally placed in our towns and cities to provide a traffic-free and low-carbon transport network and for heating and cooling systems for buildings (Parry). But given their proximity to 8.5 million inhabitants (nearly 15% of the UK population lives within 1km of a waterway) they also have huge potential for leisure and in providing good quality outdoor space for people, particularly in heavily populated areas in former industrial towns. These ‘blue/green’ corridors can provide high quality pedestrian and cycle routes away from the roads and noise and bustle of the city. No other organisation has 2000 miles of freely accessible outdoor space, so close to so many people, in areas of most need’ (Parry).

‘More than half of the population of the West Midlands is within 10 minutes’ walk from their nearest canal’ (Parry).


Case Study: Southall:



The Canal & River Trust, who own and manage the 2000 miles of the UK’s waterways, is developing design guidance to help local authorities and developers take full advantage of what our urban waterways have to offer and has already worked with local councils on canal improvement projects. One of those projects is in Southall, North London, where the Grand Union Canal was transformed into Southall Grand Union Canal Wellbeing Way. Muddy towpaths were replaced by all weather surfaces and surrounding green spaces were improved and connected to form a green corridor that wraps around Southall. It hopes that these improvements will provide opportunities for local residents and visitors to ‘lead more active lives and boost their wellbeing’ (Canal & River Trust, 2023).


Displacement through Gentrification:

Concern is mounting however (Vidal, 2019) that planned gentrification to the canals by the Canal & River Trust might cause the displacement of residents on canal boats. In the last ten years, the percentage of boats on British waterways that are used as permanent residences has increased from 10% to 26%. There are approximately 10 000 people living on canal boats in London alone (Vidal, 2019). With an upward trend of people choosing to live on canal boats, it’s important the ownership of moorings doesn’t get turned over to developers who might want to remove residents in pursuit of business.



The network of canals, constructed for moving goods 200 years ago, is constantly adapting to suit society’s needs. In the near future, let’s hope it reaches its full potential in providing corridors of good quality urban space through our towns and cities so that everyone has access to desirable outdoor space for the benefit of their mental health. Today, one of its key functions is as ‘a national health service’ (Parry).



Canalside Improvements and Wellbeing (2023). Available at: (Accessed: 29.12.23)

HM Government (2020). The Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution

Mental Health Foundation (2021). Nature: How connecting with nature benefits our mental health

Parry, R (date unknown). Our waterways are a natural choice for transport, energy and leisure. Accessible at: (Accessed: 29.12.23)

Vidal, J (2019). The canal revolution: how waterways reveal the truth about modern Britain. Available at: (Accessed: 29.12.23)

Other sources:

Government Minister welcomes the role of our canals in the Green Industrial Revolution (2022). Available at:  (Accessed: 29.12.23)

Parry, R (2021). Reimagining our network of canals and rivers to help ensure a ‘green’ recovery post-COVID-19: Guest opinion by Richard Parry. Accessible at: (Accessed: 29.12.23)


Figure 1: Winn, J (2020). The best canal routes in the UK. Available at: (Accessed: 29.12.23)

Figure 2: Rhind-Tutt, L (2020). Look Inside Manchester’s New £250m Garden Neighbourhood. Available at: (Accessed: 29.12.23)

Figure 3: Canal Towpath Improved (2019). Available at: (Accessed: 29.12.23)

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School of Architecture
Planning and Landscape
Newcastle upon Tyne
Tyne and Wear, NE1 7RU

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