Places for People - Public greenspace

© Anne R. Beer, 2003

The Built Environment and Greenspace

Local open space and greenspace

What constitutes local open space in the public's mind ?

Harrison, Burgess and Limb (1988) carried out research for the Economic and Social Research Council and the Countryside Commission into people's attitudes and values of green space in cities. They held in-depth group discussions with selected inhabitants living near parks in the London Borough of Greenwich and interviewed over 200 people living in the same areas. The research project aimed to explore the social and cultural dimensions of popular values concerning open space - how people 'read' the urban green; how they interpret it (Harrison and Burgess, 1988).

Their study is particularly interesting since it became clear that the public perception of open space in a city was different from that of most trained planners. In the discussions people defined open space not just as parks and gardens, that is spaces specifically set aside for public enjoyment, but as urban green areas in general. "Walks along the riverside, round the houses and on the way to school; waste places seen from the top of a bus or used by children, streams and scrubby bits; farmland, woodland, golf courses, cemeteries and squares in shopping centres were all encompassed..." in the phrase open space (Harrison and Burgess, 1988).

Greenspaces are part of the totality of the city

Urban green was shown to be part of the lives of all the participants in the group discussions which formed the basis of this research, regardless of social class, income, racial origin or place of residence.

The research showed that people were aware of being in contact with urban green on a daily basis. They were aware of the enormous sensual pleasure they experienced from contact with nature - seeing sunsets, experiencing seasonal changes, the smell of leaves and flowers, walking on springy turf, watching insects, birds and animals involves us all with nature. Such experiences provide everybody with contrasts with the sterile built environment which comprises too much of our cities.

The role of 'green' in local character

One of the most important aspects of site planning has become the preservation of plants and natural habitats. In some cases this involves the designer in creating 'naturalistic' spaces, even where none previously existed.

People want green areas on their doorsteps, not tucked away in parks, not inaccessible in the distant countryside. Local and available open space is crucial to many people's sense of enjoyment of city life.

There is evidence of the psychological importance of 'green'. This includes medical observations which show that: people in hospital looking towards trees and plants can make a speedier recovery than those looking at walls; people who have been stressed and ill have recovered faster and stayed healthier for longer when they are in contact with pet animals.

City dwellers tend to have a negative image of many parts of the city which can cause dissatisfaction with the quality of life. Therefore, any characteristics such as 'greenery' which are viewed positively need to be multiplied, if city livability is to be perceived to improve.

Parks and gardens have been valued for centuries for giving people who live away from the countryside contact with nature. This argument, backed up by the planning philosophy that it was good for the health of the urban population to have access to open spaces, was used to justify the spread of urban parks in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

The possibility of going into green spaces is considered to ease the burden of urban life for city dwellers and to give added opportunities for social interaction. To make cities more livable, people want easy access to spaces where they can have contact with nature and which also delight their senses. Taken together, the research by Burgess, Limb and Harrison and by Mostyn and Millward, which is discussed in this section, produced a basic list of the characteristics which people want from outdoor areas in cities.


Ideal characteristics of local open spaces - the outdoors in cities

  • Places where contact with animals and birds and the more attractive insects like butterflies is possible.
  • Places with visual variety.
  • Places which are full of plants and give an experience of greenness.
  • Places where children can learn about nature and social life through contact with animals.
  • Places to loiter in and watch the world go by.
  • Places which are conducive to harmonious social interaction, where it is possible to meet people casually, people one would not otherwise come across.
  • Places to chat while children play.
  • Places for family outings.
  • People do not want city greenspaces as substitutes for the countryside, they want them to be different - to be a contrast with the built environment and to give them a sense of 'contact with things natural'.



City dwellers want doorstep greenspaces

City dwellers want:

  • small spaces available near the home, not big empty public open spaces which all too frequently are seen as a series of no-go areas
  • spaces to give a variety of visual experience locally, with colour on the doorstep; spaces full of interest
  • spaces which do not appear neglected.

Note: The availability of open spaces in city parks is no substitute for doorstep spaces and local 'just round the corner' communal spaces. City parks fulfil a different function. Local open spaces need to be within 6 minutes' walk of every house if they are to be perceived as accessible.



The need for places that people feel comfortable using is now recognised as central, both to effective urban planning and the detailed design of the public realm

High quality urban greenspaces are multi-functional places.

The presence of greenspace:

  • supports the recreational, experiential and health requirements of local people, as well as visitors
  • contributes to the way they encourage people to spend leisure time locally by reducing vehicle usage
  • allows urban dwellers the opportunity of being in places experienced as relatively quiet and 'different' fosters a feeling of community pride in a local area
  • supports the development and maintenance of biodiversity in urban areas
  • supports the local management of water flows and quality
  • allows local composting of biodegradable waste
  • contributes to cleaning particulates out of the air, through their tree and shrub cover
  • helps reduce the urban 'heat island' effect
  • increases the economic attractiveness of a city. For instance, attractive green areas can influence the decision-making processes of entrepreneurs seeking new locations for businesses, developers deciding where to invest, and tourists deciding where to visit.

te : 5 Nov 2003

Local spaces

Benefits of open spaces


Site planning criteria

Links and References

Books and papers

Burgess, Jacquelin, Limb, Melanie and Harrison, Carolyn (1988) Exploring environmental values through the medium of small groups. Part One and Part Two. Environment and Planning A, 20.

Harrison, Carolyn and Burgess, Jacquelin, (1988) Qualitative research and open space policy, The Planner, Nov. 1988, 16-18.

Millward, Alison and Mostyn, Barbara (1989) People and nature in cities, Urban Wildlife Journal: No. 2, NCC publication, London.


Back to top

Text and illustrations (unless stated otherwise) © Anne R. Beer, Map21 Ltd, 2001, all rights reserved.
Terms of use: Any involved in education or training may copy the contents of these web pages with the proviso that they always make reference to the origial copyright.

© Anne Beer, 2000
Web pages by
Map21 Ltd

Latest update 12 Dec 2003