This article was published in 2022, in Magazine 154.
For those who don’t know St Ives, this historic Cambridgeshire market town approximately 13 miles northwest of Cambridge is notable for its distinctive 15th-century bridge which spans the River Great Ouse, and upon which sits the Chapel of St Ledger. It is the St Ives of the nursery rhyme (‘As I was going to St Ives, I met a man with seven wives etc…’), and was once the home of Oliver Cromwell. The surrounding flood meadows, nature reserves, heritage sites and villages have inspired artists, writers and naturalists. With a population of over 17,000 the town is well served for supermarkets and amenities, the guided busway has enabled greater connectivity to Cambridge, and with Huntingdon station 7 miles away, living in the town is a viable proposition for those who undertake regular rail journeys to London.
St Ives Eco Action came into being in January 2020, when a public meeting was convened to begin to form a local Climate Action Plan. I simply put posters up around town that said ’Care about the local environment but don’t know what to do about it?’ and gave a date, time and venue. I thought about ten people would turn up, so I was overwhelmed when nearly 80 people came through the door on that cold dank winter’s evening to express their concerns, share common interests and build solidarity.
While wildfires burned in Australia, chief executive Brian Eversham of the Wildlife Trust BCN spoke about the impact of climate change on Cambridgeshire nature and the role and necessity of local action at times of ecological and climate crisis. Speakers from two local groups talked about what was already happening in the town to raise awareness of climate issues, and a representative of Cambridgeshire Climate Emergency talked about the importance of data in informing plans.
Inspired by these speakers, we then broke out into groups to generate ideas and suggestions for future actions, which were duly captured on post-it notes, scribbled down by facilitators and on feedback forms. The discussion generated an energised buzz, and the notes that were written up formed the basis of our first local Climate Action Plan. The themes identified were: Active Travel; Nature and Conservation; Transport, Energy and Water; Circular Economy including waste and recycling; and Food. Communications were identified as a strong part of the overall picture.
And then COVID struck! While lockdown may have prevented us from meeting in person, a Steering Group was formed and Open Community Zooms were held regularly to scope ideas and plans, to share news and information, and to hear from guest speakers. A regular newsletter was produced to keep people connected and informed of both local and national initiatives and policy directives that might affect us, and that might inform our plan. The ethos and approach of the group has always been one of inclusivity and empowerment.
One of the gifts of lockdown was that it made us get our bikes out of the sheds and use them, and the emergency traffic measures installed in St Ives town centre to enable social distancing helped us to visualise and directly experience the benefits of a town centre where the motor vehicle did not have dominion.
It stimulated discussions about possibilities for cycling and walking locally, and we got as far as getting a brief to commission a Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan for St Ives and surrounding villages, considered by St Ives Town Council.
A quick survey on the Harrison Way crossing over 30 minutes one sunny Sunday in August 2020 revealed 73 cycles entering the town: groups, singles, unusual cycles, some serious racing bicycles and some just ‘people getting around on bikes’. Seats outside cafés and reduced traffic in the town centre encouraged an atmosphere of leisure and enjoyment, and made us feel safe. We dreamed of St Ives, the Cyclist’s Paradise … it seemed entirely possible then, and we’d like to make it happen now.
In reality, this translated into a dry policy statement within our plan, ‘to work towards a transport infrastructure that links our town with the surrounding areas, seamlessly integrating with public transport and prioritising active travel, enabling people to walk and cycle safely thus reducing our reliance on personal vehicle use and promoting public health and well-being’.
- In addition to greater and safer connectivity between our towns and villages, at a practical level we envisage:
- A programme of repair and maintenance for local cycle paths
- Additional space identified and allocated for safe cycling and walking
- New, safer crossing points
- More cycle racks and secure parking
- Improved mapping and signage.
- Consideration of the river as an active travel option, including possibly electric-powered boats
- Coherent, safe, and well-designed active transport network seamlessly integrated with public transport options that supports economic recovery and increases access to nature.
St Ives, A Cyclist’s Paradise…?
It seemed entirely possible a year ago, and we’d like to make it happen. We recognise that we have much to learn about how we grapple with the technical aspects, generate interest in and maintain momentum around a campaign, feed into plans and influence decision-making. One thing I am learning about building a campaign in a provincial setting is that there is strength in numbers, and it’s really, really, hard work to get a sufficient critical mass behind a cause to generate a tipping point, no matter how creative the community might be. Volunteers, no matter how good their intentions, are often reluctant to put in the time required, to commit to actions or to take leadership. I’ve been reading a lot about Collective Impact Initiatives, and backbone support organisations are seen as critical to success. I look to Camcycle as a backbone support organisation which can help us to bring stakeholders together, to lobby for better infrastructure and help to put St Ives firmly on the map as another cycling town of Cambridgeshire!
For further information please email email@example.com or visit www.facebook.com/stivesecoaction. The group works on community organising principles: we host Climate Cafés on the first Saturday morning of every month at St Ives Free Church, where all are welcome. St Ives Eco Action also works with and is a member of the Hunts Cycling & Walking Group.
Helen Dye, Founder and Coordinator,
St Ives Eco Action