Why do we need varied urban nature for diverse urban publics?

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By Helen Hoyle….

A new book chapter by Dr Helen Hoyle highlights why a nuanced approach to urban greenspace provision is essential to human mental and physical wellbeing.


There will be an online book launch of Naturally Challenged, 08 October 2020, 17.00 BST. Please join the discussion by booking a ticket on Eventbrite.

The Covid-19 pandemic has heightened our awareness of the mental and physical wellbeing benefits of access to ‘urban nature’ in parks, gardens, green and blue spaces. The monetary value of these benefits is increasingly reported, for example, recent UK research estimated the human wellbeing value of frequent use of local parks and green spaces at £34.2bn/yr1, with the NHS saving £111m/yr1 based solely on reduction in GP visits. Earlier research found the total annual financial value of active visits to England’s parks, woodlands and beaches to be £2.18 bn2.

parkrun participants in Fairlands Valley Park in Stevenage, UK.
The total annual financial value of active visits to England’s parks, woodlands and beaches has been estimated to be £2.18 bn2.

Yet to optimise the benefits of ‘urban nature’ for people, policymakers and practitioners must be mindful that variability in nature itself matters; variability in flowering and colour, biodiversity and tidiness all have specific impacts on human wellbeing, whilst at the same time socio-cultural diversity –differences in age, sex, professional background and whether people have a background of migration from another country, and how nature-connected people are, all have a bearing on how they relate to or value ‘urban nature’.

My own research3 has revealed a critical threshold flower cover of 27% as key to provoking the ‘wow factor’ amongst people spending time in parks and gardens. Most people find colourful flowering plants stimulating and exciting, boosting their mood and short-term happiness, whereas leafy green planting supports calm relaxation. This is extremely important for planting designers, because focal displays of vibrant, flowering plants can be strategically positioned to provoke human delight, yet green background planting must be prioritised elsewhere to support mental restoration.

The Punchbowl, Valley Gardens, UK in May (above) and August (below).
People find colourful flowering plants stimulating and exciting, boosting their mood and short-term happiness, whereas leafy green planting supports calm relaxation.

Recent research across Europe has also confirmed appreciation of wilder grasslands and meadows in our urban parks and gardens. This may seem like good news at a time when austerity makes any alternative impossible in many urban green spaces, yet a more nuanced consideration4 of this appreciation shows that i) context matters: although people are appreciative of grasslands and meadows, some prefer neater, short-cut grass immediately outside their homes; ii) once people are aware of the habitat-value of taller meadows to urban invertebrates they are more prepared to accept them, even when they may appear brown and unkempt, beyond the flowering season; iii) ‘Cues to care’ matter: people like to see neat mown edges ‘framing’ an area of longer meadow or grassland, showing the area is being managed deliberately, and allowing access at the edge of footways. Although most people are not good at recognising biodiversity at the species level, they gain considerable wellbeing benefits from experiencing it. My recent interviews with parkrun participants confirm this, with one commenting on his own eagerness to see if there were birds on a lake as he ran or walked through a park, although he didn’t know any more than that if they were swans or ducks.

Urban meadows in Bedford UK.
Although people are appreciative of grasslands and meadows, some prefer neater, short-cut grass immediately outside their homes

Research has also shown differences in the response to ‘urban nature’ between women and men. My own research in woodlands, shrubs and herbaceous planting of varying structural naturalness indicated that women found all types of planting more mentally restorative than men3 and perceived higher levels of ‘naturalness’5, regardless of the style of planting they walked through. In our work on urban meadow introduction with local authority land managers in Bedfordshire, we found that there was a preference for meadow style planting over traditional herbaceous and formal bedding styles, but the effect was stronger for women. People working in landscape, environmental and horticultural professionals also demonstrate contrasting perceptions and preferences to those of non-professionals, with professionals usually preferring wilder more naturalistic styles than other members of the public. They need to be mindful of this when planning and designing green spaces for other people.

Supporters of the ‘Biophilia hypothesis’ advocate that humans are hard-wired to bond closely with the natural world. Yet for some first-generation migrants with BAME backgrounds, ‘nature’ may appear too wild, dirty and inhospitable and they may be less supportive of urban grasslands than others, preferring tidier, manicured green spaces.  This applies to some communities in Luton, Bedfordshire, where I have recently worked on the Futureproofing Luton project, co-producing an arboretum-meadow on a former minigolf site in Wardown Park, with the Parks Service and children from Riverbank Primary School. Parks and greenspaces are often designed with a white wilderness view of the world, and scant consideration for local needs and priorities. Engaging local people to co-create and co-produce the form of urban nature which best supports their wellbeing is an urgent priority. Nature-connection is developed through individual or community experiences over the life-course, often with roots in childhood experiences of nature within urban woodlands and greenspaces. Working with children to explore and highlight the benefits of urban nature for climate change adaptation and mitigation, biodiversity and human wellbeing, as in the Futureproofing Luton project, provides a positive approach to futureproofing our greenspaces.

Tree planting with children from Riverbank Primary School in Luton (February 2020) on the Futureproofing Luton project.

1Fields in Trust, (2018). Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces.


2 White et al. (2016). Recreational physical activity in natural environments and implications for health: A population based cross-sectional study in England. Preventive Medicine 91, 383-388.

3Hoyle et al. (2017). All about the ‘wow factor’? The relationships between aesthetics, restorative effect and perceived biodiversity in designed urban planting. Landscape and Urban Planning, 164, 109-123 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169204617300701

4Hoyle et al. (2017). “Not in their front yard” The opportunities and challenges of introducing perennial urban meadows: A local authority stakeholder perspective. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 25, 139-149. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1618866716305489

5Hoyle et al. (2019).  What determines how we see nature? Perceptions of naturalness in designed urban green spaces. People Nat.; 00:1–14.


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