Places for People - Public greenspace

© Anne R. Beer, 2003

Public greenspace in the built environment

Community benefits from local open spaces

An open space needs a sense that it belongs to an identifiable community if it is to thrive.

Research in the last decade has indicated the importance of communities feeling that they own and are responsible for their open spaces - where this does not occur, vandalism is more rife and that in turn can lead to a fear of crime. This fear leads to a reduction in the use of open spaces and can mean, therefore, that the spaces really do become less safe as the usage declines.

When we plan and design open spaces we have to be clear who will feel ownership and then design accordingly. Involvement in the making of an open space is important in developing a feeling of 'ownership'.

Research by Mostyn (1979) showed that when these people were interviewed in later years almost everybody who had been involved in community open space schemes talked about their local natural area as my valley, my trees, our place. This is the key to developing safe, well used spaces.

The people saw their involvement in planting trees on the site as symbolic of putting down roots. Years after the event individuals were still able to identify 'my tree', 'my nest box'.

There was a strong contrast between such attitudes to spaces which had been developed with the aid of the local community and those that had been imposed by outsiders, where everything was described as theirs, the local government's.

Mostyn (1979) recorded less vandalism where people used the words 'my' or 'ours'.

All types of people, not just nature lovers, are interested in nature in cities.

Mostyn's (1979) studies showed that the full range of people in any community can become involved in open space projects, not just one segment of a local population. Indeed there were no common personality characteristics to account for an interest in nature. According to her research, all ages and all occupations proved to be interested.

She showed that the public at large do comprehend the recreational value of wildlife and natural areas in a city, so much so that if they have the opportunity, local people will alter their open spaces to increase the recreational potential of the natural areas, for instance by creating a jogging track.

She also showed that adults regard local open spaces as important places for children to learn about themselves and come into contact with nature.


Benefits to the individual

The research by
Mostyn, 1979 showed that people were even aware that the work they had undertaken on conservation (planting, pruning, wall building, hedging) had recreational value; for example, reducing stress values at the same time as learning a skill.

Research in the 1980s indicated the importance of open spaces and greenspace to city dwellers (Millward and Mostyn, 1989). A range of benefits to the individual from involvement in open space schemes were identified. Knowledge of these can help to identify ways of making open spaces safer.

Emotional benefits

People talked about the relief of escaping from their home environment by going to the area of natural land, of experiencing it as a paradise, of the sense of being alone and away from it all, of the peacefulness (remember several were just small patches of land in the city, so it is interesting to note that the perceptions and reality differ greatly). Some people even said that they were able to feel that they were in the countryside. In many cases a sense of pride that this special natural site was in their neighbourhood and that they had been involved in its development, was expressed.

Intellectual benefits

Through the group discussions it became clear that people were aware that they had gained something from seeing nature at work, from finding out about local history and from the learning of new skills.

Social benefits

People said that they felt they could be more friendly and could get to know people more easily in the natural area, that there was more community spirit and people were more responsible for things. Teenagers had enjoyed being seen as useful members of society.

Physical benefits

People spoke of being out in the fresh air, feeling more alive, feeling fitter. Parents spoke of the fact that they felt the area was safer because their children were away from the traffic.


The disadvantages to the individual

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 it meant that 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

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

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 19 Dec 2003