Making Connections: a study in accessible greenspace

Jane Stoneham, Sensory Trust

The Making Connections study is centred on the connection between people and nature, and particularly on how opportunities to enjoy the natural world can be made available to everyone, regardless of age or disability. The study does not presume that disabled and older people have more interest in greenspace than anyone else, simply a basic right for all people to have meaningful opportunities to enjoy, learn from and participate in the natural world.

People get tremendous pleasure from nature in all kinds of ways. Enjoying the sights, scents and sounds of a woodland walk, spotting the first fledgling birds of the season and riding a sledge down a snowy hill may seem incidental in themselves but can add up to significant qualities in people’s lives. Too often these pleasures are inaccessible to people whose mobility is limited by age or disability. Sometimes access is denied because of environmental barriers – perhaps the paths in the local park are too narrow for someone to use a wheelchair or there are no toilets nearby. However, there may be other more ‘hidden’ factors that are harder to identify – maybe people may not know that there is attractive local greenspace to visit or they might feel unsure about going somewhere they do not know or have no information about. It is these hidden barriers that provided the main focus for the Making Connections study.

Accessible greenspace?

The project was inspired by a fundamental concern that many areas of public greenspace in this country are failing to meet the needs of disabled people and that even where some sites have provided good access facilities they still remain relatively under-used. This pattern of under-use has been expressed to us informally by many site practitioners. It was also highlighted in surveys made for the DEMOS report, ‘Park Life: Urban Parks and Social Renewal’ (Greenhalgh & Warpole, 1995), which indicated that the presence of people with evident disabilities never amounted to more than 0.5% of all users.

In addition, the Countryside Agency (Chesters, 1997) identified three types of countryside visitors: the frequent visitors represent 20% of the nation’s population and tend to be better off two-car families, well informed and able bodied. Occasional visitors represent 40% of the population and tend to be people on middle incomes, with one car per household, living in the towns and suburbs. The missing visitors represent another 40% of the population and these people are generally on low income or state benefit, living in poorer conditions and reliant on public transport. They include, ethnic communities, elderly people (especially the lone elderly) and people with disabilities.

The percentage of people who are being left out must be a cause for concern. Local areas of greenspace offer the main opportunities for people to have contact with nature. They are also the areas that give opportunities for local communities to change their own environment and so play a part in creating a sustainable vision for the future. This is fundamental to Local Agenda 21 and to the whole idea of directing people’s attention, through local action, to broader environmental issues. For such strategies to work they must include all members of the community. A loss of involvement by disabled and older people (1 in 10 of the population) will result in a loss to the social, economic and cultural make-up of the community.

The Making Connections Project

Accessibility is a complex issue and relies on both physical factors (such as distance from home) and socio-cultural factors (such as people wanting to go somewhere and feeling comfortable there). These social factors are generally less obvious but often very significant in making disabled people feel excluded. The Making Connections project was designed to address accessibility in terms of these socio-cultural factors, in particular highlighting ways that greenspace can provide rich experiences and a means of disabled people connecting with their community and with their surrounding environment. The aim was to work with, and through, disabled people to inform professional practice. The study was intended be foundational and in this respect it was bound to raise further questions as well as identify some solutions.

A major aim of the study was to highlight examples of literature and web material that cover the major issues relating to accessible greenspace, identify examples of good practice from around the country and explore the views and experiences of disabled and older people and greenspace managers. This involved conducting a literature review, site visits to a wide range of greenspace sites, contact with disabled and older people, policy makers and site managers, and two national surveys.

The User Survey

Most visitor surveys focus on people who are already using greenspace, usually through on-site surveys. There has been limited attention on non-users (i.e. people who are excluded, either through choice or because of barriers) and the reasons why they are not visiting greenspace. This was the focus for the Making Connections User survey and involved the use of a postal questionnaire and interviews with disabled and older people.

The challenge was to design a survey that would target disabled and older people who are out-and-about but not necessarily visiting public greenspace sites, and in this way to get the views of people who might well visit if certain adjustments or provision were made. A critical part of the work was the identification of appropriate avenues for distributing the questionnaire so that it would reach people, for example through Shopmobility centres that provide support for disabled shoppers, disability groups, disability-related events such as the national transport roadshow and social and residential centres. There are few surveys of this kind to draw upon and to an extent the development of the methodology in itself was an important part of the research. For this reason we felt it was important to include a summary of the survey questions and data in this publication.

The feedback from the User Survey was valuable in identifying the kinds of barriers that disabled and older people are experiencing, the benefits and attractions that greenspace can offer as well as an insight into the ways in which age and disability can influence expectations, opportunities and choices.

The site survey

The Site Survey used a postal questionnaire and interviews to target greenspace practitioners and policy makers. The aim was to determine what main attractions are on offer, how site managers are responding to the disability community and what kind of good practice is taking place. Consequently some of the questions were designed to mirror those of the User Survey in order to provide some degree of comparison over certain issues.

Although the site survey showed a lively mix of attractions such as attractive landscape settings, café and refreshment facilities, events and activity programmes the picture gained – particularly from site visits was that provision for people with disabilities is patchy. Many of the examples of good practice were found in isolation and reflected a lack of a holistic approach. For example, a good wheelchair accessible trail may have been constructed but the pre-visit information would either be inappropriate or non-existent. In this respect it is hoped that the reader will be eclectic and draw together some of the examples of good practice highlighted and add them to his/her repertoire.

Definition of Disability and Scope of Publication

Disability is by nature a highly individualistic issue and although there are distinct typologies of disability there are very many variations within each group. For example ‘mobility impairment’ can define a wheelchair user, a person who can only walk a short distance or someone who can walk at length but has difficulty with steps or gradient. There is also variation in the degree of time that has elapsed since the advent of a disability condition – some people have experience recent trauma whilst others have worked through all the stages of change and have re-invented a new life and identity for themselves. For others it is not a case of rehabilitation i.e. regaining something that has been lost but of habilitation – gaining something for the first time. Then there are the changes associated with ageing that come to us all as well as the disabling conditions that are gradual in nature rather than sudden.

The following groupings are based, not on the basis of specific medical conditions, but as a check-list for both design requirements and for design suitability.
1. Semi-Ambulent (mobility-impaired) people
2. Wheelchair users
3. People with sensory impairments
4. People with learning difficulties
5. Disabled children
6. Elderly people

Although it was recognised that the defining line between learning disabilities and some types of mental illness is not always clear cut, again because of the limitations of time and because it would be worthy of a separate study, people with mental illness were not included within the study.

Definitions of Natural and Public Greenspace

From an ecological perspective English Nature (Harrison et al 1995) define natural greenspace as:
‘ Land, water and geological features which have been naturally colonised by plants and animals and which are accessible on foot to large numbers of residents’.

This definition goes on to include such places as:
• Sites awaiting redevelopment which have been colonised by spontaneous assemblages of plants and animals;
• Land alongside water-ways, transport and service corridors which although perhaps once deliberately landscaped or planted are now mixtures of planted and spontaneous assemblages;
• Tracts of encapsulated countryside such as woodlands, scrub, heathlands, meadows, and marshes which through appropriate management continue to support essentially wild plant and animal assemblages. Often these natural areas exist within the framework of formally designated public open space;
• Ponds, ditches, rivers, lakes and reservoirs;
• The less intensively managed parts of parks, school grounds, sports pitches, golf courses, churchyards and cemeteries;
• Incidental pocket-sized plots along residential and commercial roads, pathways, car parks, and property boundaries, including walls and built structures which are often spontaneously colonised by plants and animals
• Allotments, orchards and gardens.

This definition is useful in identifying many of the places that are relevant to the study. However, it was important for the project to apply a social definition of greenspace (i.e. greenspace that is peopled and therefore ‘public’). DEMOS authors (Worpole & Greenhalgh, 1996) define public greenspace as:
‘ Public greenspace is not space that is empty but space that is used. It is space that is dynamic and only comes into use over time. Optimal greenspace is that which has rhythms and patterns of its own being occupied at different times by quite different groups, occasionally by almost everybody, The value of their contribution to urban life lies in their attractiveness, flexibility and plural sense of ownership.’

With these two perspectives in mind the public greenspace types that were selected for this study were:
• Urban parks and gardens and historic estates.
• City farms and community gardens.
• Urban community woodlands and forests.
• Nature reserves.
• Any urban or rural landscape to which the general public is admitted.

Cemeteries, playgrounds, school and hospital grounds, allotments and the National Parks were excluded from the study because they were regarded as spaces requiring study in their own right or were felt to be beyond the scope of the project.

Making Connections: A Guide to Accessible Greenspace is available to buy from the Sensory Trust.