Places for People - Public greenspace

© Anne R. Beer, 2003

Public greenspace in the built environment

Attitudes towards open space

The research by Burgess, Harrison and Limb (1988) indicated significant differences between the social groups in their perceptions and attitudes towards open space. This contrasts with earlier psychological research which suggests that the major differences are based on individual psychological processes. Many of their findings about open spaces have been repeated subsequently as part of a comparative study of the cities of Nottingham (U.K.) and Eindhoven (Netherlands) being undertaken in 1993-4 (Burgess, Harrison & Filius, 1994).

It was found that those who lived in the environments which were most deficient in open space attached the greatest importance to that open space. They wanted it as both social space and living space.

As far as the site planner is concerned, the most important finding of this research has been that people look for diversity of experience of open and greenspace right on their doorsteps. They do not want open space far from their homes in distant oases, such as in parks or public open space. What they want is open space on their doorstep, freely available to all sections of the community.

In this context, the fact that women are inhibited from using many existing open spaces (see Section below on Women's' use of open spaces) is a crucial design and management issue which has to be addressed by the site planner.

Nature is fun

All classes and cultural groups reflected this attitude. They liked being outside, being aware of the seasons, being aware of the natural world, sliding on ice, kicking leaves around in Autumn and they liked fresh morning air.

People talked particularly about animals, birds and insects that they remembered having seen. Although they were aware of the plants, these were a secondary satisfaction. It was the bird, animal and insect life that stood out in people's minds. A feeling of wonder and awe was often expressed in relation to wildlife. People expressed a desire for contact and were curious about how nature worked.

Social differences in attitudes towards open space

The Greenwich study by Burgess, Harrison and Limb seems to indicate that middle class attitudes towards open space differ from those of the working class.

The middle class group in the research project was more self-conscious in their awareness of enjoying landscape, experiencing it as something to be looked at and thought about. In contrast, those in the working class groups experienced landscapes as something to be inside and primarily as a setting for their social life.

Men and women and ownership of open space

Men regarded open space as a setting for their own activities, whereas women persisted in valuing open space most of all as a place for their children. Women and men who were parents were the most hostile to the bare, bleak playing fields and park areas managed as if they were savannah. It was only those involved directly or indirectly in sports who did not see that these areas were lacking as social settings.

Women want to feel free to use open spaces without fear

It was noticeable in the discussions that not many women saw the use of open space as part of their rights. Women are afraid to go into many open spaces, especially woods. Yet as they talked about these feelings, it also became clear that they wanted those experiences for themselves and resented the fears which stopped so many of them going into open spaces and woodlands on their own. The research showed that to a major extent women's fears related to the cultural/social context of their lives. Media coverage of attacks on women and children, as well as the reality of their actual experiences, further inhibited their use of open space.

Ethnic groups want parks as social spaces

The ethnic groups, in this case from the Indian subcontinent, showed some differences of attitude towards open spaces. For instance, those born outside Britain tended to transfer their own childhood experiences to their reading and understanding of the significance of various landscapes. All the Asian women in the sample perceived open spaces in Greenwich as dangerous and explained this as fear of gender, as well as fear of racially inspired attacks. At the same time they wanted the parks to be social places - places for extended family outings and social interaction.

Natural landscapes and perception of danger

There was recognition of the problem that interesting natural landscapes were the most dangerous to go into. This was blamed on vandalism and criminal behaviour, linked with various forms of attack on the person. But this situation was also linked by the groups to the breakdown of the community spirit, rather than the type of landscape. The presence of sympathetic parks staff was seen as a major means of overcoming this. There was no demand for such landscapes to be removed from the city.


The disadvantages to the individual of involvement with greenspace regeneration

There are also disadvantages for the individual who commits time and energy to improving their local open spaces:

The research by Mostyn (1979) showed that:

  • almost all the disadvantages related to a feeling of a lack of control over events
  • people spoke of the personal upset it caused if vandalism happened on their land
  • people disliked the areas looking untidy, they wanted them to look well managed; otherwise they considered that it meant the place was uncared for
  • people spoke of feeling let down if things happened too slowly after they had been suggested
  • people wanted others outside their local community to know what a good place their natural area was. Publicity and visibility of the site were seen as important. Without this they felt undervalued.

Fear of loss

The fear that their natural area would be taken away from them by the authorities or developers was overwhelming. Some even spoke of stopping themselves liking the place for fear of being upset when it was destroyed.


People disliked it when there were not enough colours in the site. (In Britain, if native vegetation alone is used there is a limit to the variety of colour that can be introduced into a natural scene, but this disadvantage can be overcome by careful choice of species and the judicious addition of exotic species).

  Local spaces



Site planning

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.

Burgess, J. et al. (1994) Achieving more sustainable neighbourhoods. In Sustainable Urban Development: Research and Experiment (ed. H. van der Vegt et al.), Delft University Press.

Mostyn, Barbara (1979) Personal benefits and satisfactions derived from participation in urban wildlife projects, NCC publication.

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Text and illustrations (unless stated otherwise) © Anne R. Beer, Map21 Ltd, 2001, all rights reserved.
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© Anne Beer, 2000
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Latest update 6 Nov 2003