If nature is so good for us, why aren’t all public green spaces accessible?

A public space the public isn’t allowed to enjoy. Flickr/Fabio Venni, CC BY-SA

There’s nothing better than a breath of fresh air. Scientists have proven that getting out and smelling the roses can make you feel more relaxed. Spending time in green spaces is associated with lower stress levels and blood pressure too. In fact, research has shown that contact with natural environments can improve our social development and encourage us to make better choices on a daily basis.

The way we plan and design villages, towns and cities has a direct impact on our physical and mental health and well-being, yet so many public places in neighbourhoods are being underused and poorly managed. Take Nottingham, for example, where ball games have been banned in a number of areas, and fences were erected to stop neighbours from accessing green spaces.

Parks and squares are regarded as some of the greatest legacies of the Victorian era, used to promote health and well-being in an era of slums and poor sanitation. In Nottingham alone 130 acres of green areas were developed around the city to promote better health – an unprecedented figure for green infrastructure in those times. Inexplicably, however, despite previous experiences green spaces are now being closed off to the general public.

Living well

The increase in mental health illness in urban places is a matter of concern across the world, and no less so in Britain. One in four people in the UK suffer from mental health disorders, and almost 20% of the population have been recorded as showing signs of anxiety or depression. Mental health accounts for the largest NHS expenditure: its cost has increased from eight to 11 billion pounds per year in the last decade, and currently costs around £850 per person every year.

But this should not just be a matter for the health service to worry about: the design of the built environment could help solve these problems. Contact with natural elements is a key aspect of well-being. Designing with an emphasis on guiding people into and through the space, providing clear links with navigation cues leading to meaningful places, can alleviate some of the environmental stress in urban settlements.

To achieve improved lifestyles, we need to connect closely with our public and green places. However, for this to happen people must develop a sense of responsibility, which comes with a feeling of ownership and belonging. The most effective way to achieve this is through designing and managing public places to help develop a sense of social identity, and create collective place memories at a neighbourhood level.

But opportunities are repeatedly being missed across towns and neighbourhoods to make the most of what the locality has to offer. Small-scale life projects that regenerate or invigorate interest in different areas are often welcomed by schools and universities as they give students the opportunity to learn while providing a valuable service to communities. But these engagement programmes are often isolated events driven by individuals through their personal networks: a more strategic vision is needed.

This kind of design requires strong leadership from the authorities and commitment from developers to provide more than just houses – and it’s not as hard a task as it may seem. In Leicester, the new Lubbesthorpe site – built with 75 acres of new woodland and 250 acres of park land – and Hinkley West development, designed with 109 acres of open land, have recently been built to incorporate these principles.

Loneliness and the land

The government’s Big Society, launched in 2010, empowered communities to encourage more social action, supporting people to help themselves; to use local networks and resources to make communities more resilient. Yet the UK still has one of the highest indices of loneliness in Europe: people feel less close to their neighbours, and therefore have no one to turn to in a crisis.

The impact of loneliness on health compares to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and imposes higher risks than diabetes or obesity. The strengthening and survival of social support networks in communities is vital to the physical and psychological health of the population, so what better way to help this community spirit than offering open spaces where people can meet and enjoy themselves?

Indeed, the devolution agenda could facilitate the creation of management strategies at a more local level, engaging communities in the planning and caring of their local assets. Broader application of neighbourhood plans could also become a vehicle to deliver a stronger sense of local commitment towards green spaces. Furthermore, small scale public places could become hubs for skills development, network bridging, leadership strengthening and building trust. These places could offer a platform to develop local support networks, engage different age groups and battle loneliness.

We know we need to live in a more sustainable landscape capable of hosting more positive lifestyles, yet too often, overarching constraints commonly ingrained in multiple land ownership issues, public health and safety and long term management costs, obstruct any prospects of change.

Now is the time to make a greater effort to find alternative ways to deliver well-being above all other concerns: alienating people from their neighbouring public places does exactly the opposite.

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