URBAN GREENSPACES: Understanding patterns of use and greenspace distribution in England to inform spatial planning


The successful implementation of many government policies to enhance the greening of cities around the world and to enable more people to enjoy access to the natural environment requires an in-depth understanding of how people interact with urban nature. This chapter explores the patterns of people’s usage of their local parks and greenspaces in urban areas in England, the benefits they enjoy, and the factors and attributes of greenspace provision that encourage or discourage visits. The findings of an annual national survey in England, called the ‘Monitoring of Engagement in the Natural Environment Survey’ (MENE), are analyzed by demographic and socio-economic groups to better understand social equity and patterns of use of the urban natural environment. Using the MENE dataset, patterns of visits in London and Greater Manchester were examined and the relationship of visits to the availability and proximity of urban greenspaces in East London and Greater Manchester was analyzed. The chapter concludes with recommendations on the use of these findings in urban planning to increase greenspace use benefits and social and economic equitability in access and recreational opportunities, and for further research.

Definitions of urban natural environment

While there are no universal definitions of urban greenspace, or 'urban green infrastructure’, the following definitions are used in this study:

  • Accessible greenspace — places that are available for the general public to use free of charge and without time restrictions (although some sites may be closed to the public overnight and there may be fees for parking a vehicle). The places are available to all, meaning that every reasonable effort is made to comply with the requirements of the Equality Act 2010 (HM Government 2010);
  • Natural greenspace — Places where human control and activities are not intensive so that a feeling of naturalness is allowed to predominate. Natural and semi-natural greenspace exists as a distinct typology' but also as discrete areas within the majority of other greenspace typologies (Natural England 2010);
  • Greenspace quality — A recognized standard of excellence that meets the expectations of both the staff and users of a site and the wider community and neighborhood. Such sites are visually stimulating and attractive, safe and welcoming to all sections of society, managed and maintained to the highest standards of sustainability, and provide an enjoyable and inspirational visitor experience. The Green Flag Award (www. greenflagaward.org.uk) is the nationally accepted standard of greenspace quality in England;
  • Green infrastructure (GI) — Defined in the English National Planning Policy Framework (Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government 2018) as ‘A network of multi-functional green space, urban and rural, which is capable of delivering a wide range of environmental and quality of life benefits for local communities’.

Benefits of access to urban green infrastructure including publicly accessible greenspaces

The social, environmental, and economic benefits of access to and engagement with the natural environment including accessible natural spaces in urban areas are increasingly well-documented. Social benefits include: physical health and mental well-being; physical activity, and connection with nature; community cohesion and sense of place (Lovell et al. 2020). Wider economic benefits include urban renewal, sustainable tourism, and economic productivity (Rolls and Sunderland 2014). The ecosystems services provided by urban greenspaces that benefit local communities include flood resilience and water quality, urban cooling, air quality, and noise attenuation (Davies et al. 2011).

Living in greener environments (e.g. neighborhoods with a high percentage of natural features around the home) is associated with reduced mortality, with effects greatest for cardiovascular mortality (Lovell et al. 2020). The greatest levels of exposure to greenspace are related to: more favorable salivary cortisol (an indicator of reduced stress); heart rate; blood pressure; HDL cholesterol; pregnancy outcomes; and a decreased risk of type II diabetes (Twohig-Bennett and Jones 2018).

Greener neighborhoods are also associated with improved mental health and well-being in both adults and children (Lovell et al. 2018) and people who live in urban areas with greater amounts of greenspace are generally happier, exhibiting both lower mental distress and higher life satisfaction (White et al. 2013). Living in the greenest areas is associated with more favorable cognitive development in children. Here, it should be noted that GI includes not only greenspaces but also such features as green roofs and green walls; however, these are not included in the MENE survey discussed in this chapter.

Access to greenspace may produce health benefits through various mechanisms. Theories vary and there is no current certainty as to the causal pathways. Components may include enhanced physical activity, stress reduction, exposure to and engagement with nature, relaxation and restoration, social activities and interactions, greater social cohesion, and improved air quality (Lovell et al. 2020).

Recreational walking, increased physical activity and reduced sedentary time are associated with access to, and use of, green spaces by working age adults, children, and senior citizens. The natural environment is important in supporting a variety of different forms of physical activity, from walking and gardening to children’s play. The restorative impacts of walking in natural environments appear to be more beneficial for those with poor health (in comparison to those with better health). Activities in natural environments are beneficial for children’s mental health and their cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functioning (Alcock et al. 2014).

Evidence regarding the public economic value of accessible greenspace comes from UK natural capital accounts (Office for National Statistics 2018) showing that urban greenspaces support health-enhancing physical activity of 2.1 million active visitors in 2015. This activity has a value of £4.4 billion per annum based on Treasury Green Book (HM Treasury 2018) values for health benefits (‘quality adjusted life years'). Alternatively, the general recreational value of urban greenspace is estimated using the Outdoor Recreation Valuation Tool (ORVal) to be at £5-8 billion p.a. The valuation of mental health benefits from being close to greenspace is still a developing area, as causality is difficult to demonstrate, but work for the Greater London Authority (Vivid Economics 2017) indicates that the benefits in terms of avoided mental health costs are of a similar magnitude to those for physical health benefits.

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