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  • hilarymaryallison


Updated: Mar 12

One of many sobering environmental statistics often quoted these days is that, according to the World Bank,  just over half (56%)  of the world’s population now lives in urban areas and this figure will rise to two thirds  or nearly 7 in 10 people (68%) by 2050.


So how can we ensure that towns and cities continue to be liveable places where green spaces are retained and protected to literally provide the breathing spaces and the shade-giving places needed to cope with urban and city life?  What happens when more and more people use those precious places? How is the quality of their recreational experience affected by sheer volume of use?


Do people enjoy the company of others in urban green spaces or is crowding a deterrent to enjoyment and recreation? Do we have any idea what the tipping point is for people staying away from the very resource which can help enhance urban living and if so, what  might be the consequences for human well-being? Do people find other green spaces to use, or do they simply abandon contact with green spaces altogether?

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These questions become real for anyone who has been in central London’s parks on a warm summer's weekend afternoon, where the reality of crowding is all too present.  Many of these questions were also behind a new report published this month which I was commissioned to write by Natural England, called Density and displacement of users of urban greenspaces and routes. This subject had not been looked in much detail before so this review was something of an early foray into what evidence, if any, exists to be able to answer these questions.  Following an intensive search through studies from a range of sources primarily focusing Europe, North America, and Asia, 40 were identified as being able to provide some provisional answers.  

The conclusions I was able to draw are tantalising though tentative, and certainly need more research to corroborate them more firmly but it is clear that this is not simply a numbers game. Evidence suggests that people displacement does occur in crowded urban greenspaces, but triggers vary and are often self-reported. Social factors such as group size, gender, culture, and prior experience influence perceptions of crowding. The infographic here summarises this.

While some users prefer fewer people, others see social interaction as part of the recreational experience. No direct evidence was found that particular user groups drove other users away and out of urban green spaces, but conflicts can arise with certain groups being strongly perceived as detracting from others recreational experiences, particularly mountain bikers, cyclists, and dog walkers.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

It is perhaps surprising that few urban green spaces regularly monitor their user profiles and numbers but there is a definite  need for site-based monitoring, consistent methodology for studying crowding factors, and understanding the impacts of high greenspace use on user well-being. Practical challenges for greenspace managers and urban planners include addressing conflicts between user groups, anticipating future greenspace provision, and understanding displacement-based approaches.

As ever, a deep dive into a relatively unexplored issue means you end up asking more questions than you began with. But one thing has struck me – to be a good urban space green manager you need to have a good understanding of human psychology and behaviour, not just how to often to mow the grass.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

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