New research suggests that cemeteries provide many of the same benefits as green spaces

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By Katie McClymont and Danni Sinnett…..

Cemeteries in many cities provide functions beyond that of bodily disposal and remembrance. Thinking about our own city of Bristol, Arnos Vale Cemetery provides a historic setting for numerous events and activities, a space for nature, and opportunities for community involvement, alongside its natural burial and crematoria services. Cemeteries can therefore contribute to the network of greenspaces in our towns and cities, as spaces for recreation and nature conservation providing multiple benefits, or ecosystem services, including improved health and wellbeing, flood risk management, improvements in soil, water and air quality, pollination and climate adaptation. Often historically planned to sit on the outskirts of cities, older cemeteries now offer accessible spaces in the neighbourhoods that have grown up around them, where there may be little or no other greenspace, and limited possibilities to provide more. If planned for thoughtfully, new cemeteries can be deliberately multifunctional spaces; designed from the outset to provide benefits and functions in addition to remembrance.

Informal swing at St John’s Burial Ground which also includes orchard trees

However, there has been little in the way of research on the contribution cemeteries make to our overall provision of greenspaces. In our research we have sought to address this by examining the extent to which cemeteries in England provide accessible greenspace for people and, using Bristol as a case study, explore some of the benefits that they may provide as greenspaces.

Contribution of cemeteries to greenspace provision

We used the Ordnance Survey Open Greenspace data along with data from the 2011 Census to examine the proportion of greenspaces that are cemeteries and how this varied between urban and rural areas and different types of neighbourhood. There are 120,876 greenspaces in England of which 4992 are cemeteries (4.1%) (OS, 2021). Our key findings are:

  • The amount of cemetery space in each local authority varies across England, from less than 5 ha in some areas to 183.5 ha in Birmingham.
  • The proportion of local authority comprised of cemetery space also varies from 0.0006% in West Lancashire to 3.6% in the London Borough of Newham.
  • The proportion of greenspaces that are cemetery space range from 0.24% in West Lancashire to 31.4% in the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
  • On average, there are 30ha of cemetery space across English local authorities, occupying 0.3% of local authority area and 3.7% of greenspace area.
  • Cemeteries make up a greater proportion of greenspaces in urban versus rural areas; 3.8% in cities and towns to 4.9% in major conurbations.

This means that, although varying, cemeteries form an important part of the landscape across England.

Older graves at Arnos Vale Cemetery

Potential benefits provided by cemeteries

We examined the potential benefits, or ecosystem services, provided by cemeteries through a review of the literature related to cemetery design, management and use, further spatial analysis of the OS Open Greenspace data, and surveys of eleven cemeteries in Bristol, UK that were found to be important in meeting national standards for greenspace access set by Natural England. Key findings were:

  • In England, cemeteries provide the only access to doorstop (0.5 ha greenspace within 200m of home), local (2ha within 300m of home) and neighbourhood greenspaces (10ha within 1km of home) for around 2% of the population, or 1.18m, 1.09m or 1.39m people respectively.
  • In Bristol, cemeteries are providing important functions of greenspaces contributing to walking routes, providing spaces for rest and relaxation, and social interaction.
  • Older spaces appear to be primarily functioning as greenspaces, whereas cemeteries that are or were until recently accepting burials appear to be at more transitional stages providing some limited recreational function.
  • Many cemeteries are providing space for nature with relatively mature trees, and evident from observations of birds and invertebrates, again particularly in older sites. Some cemeteries are clearly being managed for nature to some extent, for example, we saw bug hotels, unmown grassed areas.
  • The vegetation in cemeteries means that they are likely to be contributing other benefits in terms of flood risk mitigation, cooling and air quality benefits.
  • We observed new tree planting, including orchard trees, at some sites, and cemeteries may offer an opportunity to increase tree cover contributing to the target to double canopy cover across Bristol.
  • The cemeteries we visited were generally well-maintained with lower levels of incivilities, such as litter and dog mess, that can be a problem in urban greenspaces.
Signage at Arnos Vale Cemetery highlights the opportunities and challenges of multifunctional cemeteries

Although the cemeteries we surveyed are providing many of the benefits of greenspaces, planners and those managing and promoting these need to be attentive to the potentially competing needs of this ‘multifunctional’ space, such as diverse religious and spiritual practices around death and remembrance. To achieve this, we would like to see national policy guidance as well as increased funding for staff time to understand how cemeteries and greenspaces could be planned and managed as multifunctional spaces. We would also like to see green infrastructure strategies incorporate specific proposals for increasing ecosystem service delivery in cemeteries. New cemeteries could also be specifically designed to incorporate features for ecosystem service delivery.

You can read the full, open access paper here: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frsc.2021.789925/full.

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