What next for outdoor access?

In this column New Zealand Walking Access Commission board member Penny Mudford explores the changing demand for different kinds of recreation opportunities and the need for councils and central government agencies to consider future preferences in their planning.

When public consultation on walking access was undertaken in 2003, the findings showed that people across New Zealand view the outdoors as a very important part of their culture and way of life. Back then, walking, tramping, climbing and fishing were among the most common forms of outdoor recreation.

Over the past decade, demand has grown for cycling routes and horse trekking trails. Currently, New Zealand Great Rides provide a 2,500km network of cycling trails around the country, and the Te Araroa Trail offers a 3,000km walking route that stretches from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

When I first became involved in access issues in 2003, I didn't know what I know now that so many New Zealanders are enthusiastic about cycling, walking and exploring our great countryside. Tourists are also attracted to our spectacular landscapes, and to the outdoor possibilities New Zealand has to offer. They too are choosing to walk or cycle our trails as part of their travel experience.

The New Zealand Walking Access Commission's key function is to promote access to the outdoors. To achieve this, the Commission needs to understand and anticipate what people want from their outdoor experiences. But sometimes you just can't predict what the next craze will be.

Personally, I could never have imagined that New Zealanders would want to chase fictional video game characters around the countryside in a fictional game called Pokémon Go. The game is played on smartphones and involves walking around seeking the presence of virtual Pokémon characters hiding in the real world, then attempting to 'catch' them by throwing pokeballs at them. This can be a solo activity or players can join forces to hunt for Pokémon.

The game has taken the world by storm, and New Zealand is no exception. Within a few days of the game's release here, thousands of people around the country were roaming their neighbourhoods in search of Pokémon.

A strange mix of virtual gaming and outdoor adventure, Pokémon Go is just one example of the way in which demand can change. It also illustrates the fact that, in our busy, contemporary world, we need new and different ways to access the outdoors.

Access to the outdoors matters a great deal to us. In the Commission's 2015 public survey on access, 95 per cent of respondents said free and easy access to the outdoors was important to them, and 88 per cent said it was a key component of their everyday life. At the same time, in our day-to-day lives we don't always manage to find the time and space for outdoor activities that generally make us feel happier and healthier.

Looking forward, I can only imagine the ways in which people will want to access the outdoors in the future. There are trends we can understand and anticipate, but others will take us by surprise. The important thing is that free, certain and enduring access to our outdoors continues to be available so that New Zealanders and overseas visitors are able to enjoy the outdoor experiences they seek, whatever these may be.