Our green and natural spaces are getting busier. They provide multiple benefits to those who visit, are a key asset for the health and well-being of people, as well as an important provisioning, regulating and cultural service to our cities and beyond. If access to greenspace is linked to better health and wellbeing then how extensive are these areas, how do we find these spaces, and who gets to access them? At first glance the issue may be straightforward to quantify, but greenspace access is multi-dimensional and nuanced: how can we synthesise multiple spatial data beyond the proximity to all known green areas in order to capture more of these factors?
We have looked at the Bristol hinterland as an example, by examining 5km around the built-up area of Bristol and Filton (as defined by the Office for National Statistics).
It provides an alternative view to access – one that is more sustainable based on separate footpaths and some pedal bike routes, rather than the road-centric views we are usually presented with.
The Crop Map of England data gives us an estimate of urban or ‘non-vegetated / sparsely-vegetated’ land, and OS Open Map data gives us an estimate of surface water. Together with other access and designated areas data, we can estimate that only around 2.8% of greenspace areas give a legal right to roam. If we expand the definition of areas to those that might be considered generally publicaly ‘accessible’ and free of charge to include public parks or gardens, play spaces, National Nature Reserves, Local Nature Reserves, Woodland Trust sites, Country Parks, and allotments or community growing spaces, this figure still only rises to 8.4% of greenspace.
Of course accessibility is more complicated than these outline figures. Public and permissive rights of way give additional access and much of this area is dedicated to crops (26%), but the remaining land includes private land (estates, gardens, gold courses etc.) and the figures give a good overview of the extent of Bristol’s greenspace for amenity value. It may be considered that the city area itself provides a better opportunity than its surroundings with just over 600 hectares of ‘accessible’ greenspace, compared to just under 2,000 hectares in the 5km hinterland over a much larger area and sparser population.
The geography and inequality of access is also key. Having local green spaces is important to nearly everyone, and urban parks and playing fields have shown the greatest growth in use over last decade. However accessibility and quality varied across the population. Understanding the differences in under-served neighbourhoods at a local level is essential to provide the environmental equity of all populations in a town or city: looking at city-wide greenspace provision as a whole cannot be enough. Especially when we consider that most visits to nature are taken on foot and, increasingly closer to home.
In the Bristol area the residences within 400m of the 6 largest accessible areas of the Ashton Court Estate, Leigh Woods, Durdham Down, the Blaise Castle Estate, Stoke Park and Overscourt Wood are less deprived, with a lower overall deprivation score of 15.9 than other areas (at 20.8). This is an outline estimate using the IMD 2019 LSOA population-weighted centroids. For those with no access to private gardens the impact of a lack of public greenspace access is compounded, and this also has a geography of inequality across the city. Car and transport access would be another key factor to include in a wider synthesis of factors, as well as resident health.
This analysis can be improved upon and caveats are noted: datasets shown above do not include permissive rights of way, other accessible estates and extra local off-road cycle provision. Some playing fields and sports pitches not included may be more accessible than others, and there will be some specific reserves and spaces missing. These are also estimates – like most analyses it is based on modelled input datasets of various spatial scales, accuracy and completeness. This context is key for interpretation.
This is a view of Bristol. It would be interesting to compare to other towns and cities. Is this pattern repeated across the country? What might your area look like? Are there regional trends, what are the absolute numbers of residents affected, and how does detailed accessibility to hinterland and further-to-reach spaces relate to different neighbourhoods? In addition, how do these places vary in terms of their ‘wild’ nature and biodiversity potential: not all greenspaces provide the same function.
Spatial analysis can provide the glue to understanding places at multiple scales and making good decisions. To do this we must synthesise multiple aspects of the problem into one coherent picture, in order to make sense of the issue. Proposed legislation to criminalise unauthorised encampments has recently put greenspace access rights in England under the spotlight, and the environmental and social challenges faced by our cities and environment are more pertinent than ever, but with the right insight, opportunities exist to improve our greenspace provision, and address environmental equity.