In Conversation With Dr Gemma Bridge, The Running Mayor of Leeds

Gemma Bridge was appointed The Running Mayor of Leeds in March 2021. I caught up with her to see how her first couple of months in the role had worked out.

Whilst she was scrolling through Twitter at the turn of the year, Gemma Bridge spotted the RunSome campaign and the call for volunteers to help further its aims.  A few short months later and she found herself appointed Running Mayor of Leeds.   

Gemma told me that all the people involved in the RunSome campaign are volunteers, fitting the campaign work around day jobs, family commitments and running life. They are taking part in the campaign because they are passionate about encouraging more people to run some everyday journeys, errands and commutes. 

The RunSome campaign is a collaboration amongst several organisations, but it is spearheaded by Active Things and Runners World.  Gemma believes they and other collaborators have invested some money in the campaign to get it off the ground.

I wondered about Leeds City Council’s commitment to encouraging people to run. 

Gemma:  “I haven’t had an opportunity to speak to Leeds City Council with my running mayor hat on yet, so I am not familiar with their policies or commitments related to running. However, I am really keen to speak with them and see how I can support them in getting running to become part of the conversation. I have, however, spoken to members of Run Leeds, which is related to the Council, and they are really excited about the RunSome campaign and our ambitions to get more people running in Leeds.” 

In response to my question about the spread of contacts Gemma is developing, she told me her main contact so far is with Scott Cain, who is leading the campaign from the Active Things side.  In terms of keeping connected with the Running Mayor network more broadly, she is a part of the network Slack channel and whatsapp group, and they offer a good way to reach out to other running mayors to share ideas and ask questions. There is also a monthly Zoom catch up and newsletter, which together help to ensure that everyone is aware of what is going on. 

Beyond those contacts within the RunSome campaign, Gemma has reached out to numerous people and organisations.  She explained:  

“To do this, I have leveraged my existing connections across the City and have attended workshops and webinars related to sustainability and active transport. One of my aims as Running Mayor is to make running easier for people working in and around Leeds, and so I have had lots of calls with businesses about how I could support them. Following these calls, I have written blog posts and posted on social media to encourage more people to think about running, and I have developed a ‘running friendly workplace award’ which businesses can use to help them become friendly places for people who run. I am also wanting to engage people in the active travel conversation that may not have engaged them before, so I am trying to speak to community groups and schools, so that it can be a reality.” 

Within Gemma’s aims is that of encouraging local employers to provide changing facilities for their staff.  She is hoping that as she develops a widening circle of contacts, this conversation can take place.   Of course, it is still very early in the campaign and before particular objectives can be met, the priority is making sure that people in business and the public sector are aware of RunSome and what it means for the City.

Gemma had mentioned that she supports the notion of running buddies as well as improved lighting on all routes, so that runners feel safer.  Gemma:

“At the moment, I am focussing on making running a part of the conversation, and after that happens I will be able to engage with localities to explore how we can make routes safer. I am also keen to make sure that a diversity of voices are able to engage and tell me what a safe route means to them, because I wouldn’t want to advocate for a change to happen that may have negative effects elsewhere. However, in my role as Area Activator for GoodGym, I am always on the look out for areas that require litter picking, and indirectly this will help to make routes safer for runners.” 

I make the point that finding a running buddy may not be easy, and Gemma tells me she is keen to facilitate the development of a running buddy network if the interest is there:  “I am hoping that over the next few months, as I am able to speak to more people across the City, I will be able to gauge what is needed and where.  In the mean time, there are lots of running groups and clubs across Leeds that are great for those who want to run regularly with other people. There is a list of these available on the Run Leeds website. 

I tell Gemma that if I had to make the choice, I think I would choose the activity which makes me feel safest, and that would be cycling.  Cycling also has less impact on the body.  She was enthused:   “I’d say go for it! I love cycling too and it is a great way to get across the City. I think that it is important that people can choose the form of active transport that they find most beneficial for them and their needs. My aim as Running Mayor is to just make running part of the conversation, and considered as a viable form of transport – just as walking and cycling are.” 

The advantages of running are improving mental health and reducing pollution.  I realise it’s early days, but I asked Gemma if she has had any reports of anyone who is already feeling the benefit?

“I haven’t yet been able to obtain any insights about the benefits of running for those in Leeds.  However, anecdotally, I have spoken to lots of people who use running as an escape and love the feeling that they get during and afterward. I particularly love to run in the woods and on the fells – it is certainly my happy place. Encouraging more people to give running a go could have a great benefit for mental health and wellbeing, whilst also helping to reduce car dependency.” 

I wanted to know more about the international objective of using running to improve our carbon footprint, reduce congestion and save money.  Gemma:

“Running, just like other forms of active transport, can reduce car dependency which would help to reduce congestion, particularly in cities, and in doing so would help to reduce air pollution and carbon footprints. In terms of saving money, by running some more journeys, errands and commutes, we will all be able to reduce the money we spend on petrol and parking – which can only be a good thing! By encouraging people to run across the UK, it could have a big impact – and I aim to play my part in Leeds.

Do you think running mayors will be offered the opportunity to be involved in exchange visits?  If so, is there any particular country that you’d be keen to visit?  i.e. one that is making great strides with this and similar initiatives?

“Ohhh, I hadn’t considered this, but it could be really exciting. I would like to see how Paris is planning to evolve into a 15 minute city, as that is something that I think could be replicated elsewhere. I would also really like to see what is being done in the Netherlands, as they are making great strides in terms of reducing car dependency and increasing active transport.”

Are you tackling this role in stages?  i.e. are there targets to reach and if so, where do you hope to be in 2 or 5 years’ time?

“I am currently in position for 12 months, so right now, I am going all guns blazing to make a difference. However, I am trying to first make the connections and build awareness and after that I will work on making changes to policy. If I were able to stay in post longer, I would love to build a mini network of running ambassadors across West Yorkshire, who could work with me to encourage more people to run some more everyday journeys, errands and commutes. This would also be a great way to reach wider groups.” 

Finally, Gemma, what’s your advice to anyone who has never run before and who is willing to give it a try?

“I’d suggest checking out the ‘Couch to 5km’ programme as it takes you through a 12 week plan, starting from walking, and at the end you will be able to complete a 5km run. Once you can run 5km, you could give Parkruns a go, and then link up with local running clubs and groups. It is important to take running easy to start with and not expect huge things in the first few days or weeks. Becoming a runner takes consistency and patience, but once you do find a running routine, running is hard to beat! 

It seems Gemma has a huge task ahead of her, but she’s tackling it with a methodical plan.  It will be interesting to see how much impact the RunSome campaign can have on the daily complexion of our City and, far more reaching, on sustainability and the wellbeing of the good folk of Leeds.

Twitter account (RunningMayor_Leeds).

Photograph: Gemma in action.

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