Who is visiting and what do they do?

Many people visit all type of sites, regardless of age or sex. However, there are disproportionately low numbers of people from black and ethnic minorities and people with disabilities. While many people visit on their own, couples and families make up the majority of visitors, the latter espe­cially at the country parks and other sites with special facilities and ani­mals or birds.

Women visitors are under-represented in comparison with the general population, and children formed a smaller proportion than might have been expected given the times of survey. Comparatively low numbers of unem­ployed people visit; those in employment are mainly in lower supervisory and technical occupations or lower managerial and professional occupa­tions. Many retired people also visit green spaces. The findings about women seem to confirm previous studies that found that women tend to be significantly less frequent visitors than men to woodland or countryside sites (Burgess 1995; Ward Thompson et al. 2002). It may reflect the con­cerns expressed by women in the focus groups over safety, and women’s responses in the attitudinal section of the questionnaire, where feelings of vulnerability were also rated strongly.

Teenaged children are also infrequent visitors compared with younger children. One of the possible causes of this is that what urban teenagers frequently consider “outdoor” places to visit are in fact indoor spaces such as arcades and malls (Travlou 2003). It may be a particular phenomenon of this age group. Lmssoe and Iversen (2003), in an in-depth qualitative study of the importance of nature in every-day life, found that youth generates a discontinuity with the nature relationships of childhood because a lot of energy is put into social relations during this phase. The findings also bear out other research into the relationships teenagers and children have with outdoor places such as woodlands (Bell et al. 2003, 2004).

There were few people from black and ethnic minorities visiting any of the green spaces. This seems to follows a common pattern in the UK, as there is a range of evidence from the literature that black and minority eth­nic communities in Britain do not participate in visiting the countryside and other natural open spaces, and related activities, proportionate to their numbers in society.

Furthermore, fears of racial and/or sexual attack, of being alone in an unfamiliar environment and worries regarding dangerous flora and fauna, all seem to contribute to a sense of unease in countryside and other natural open spaces (Chesters 1997; Groundwork Blackburn and Manchester Metropolitan University 1999; Slee et al. 2001).

The main reasons people visit green spaces are to walk the dog, to gain exercise, and for the pleasure of being in a park or close to nature. Dog walking is most popular at local sites and in woodlands, also at country parks, but less frequent at nature reserves. Reducing stress and relaxing are significant reasons for visiting green spaces and represent one of the main social values. The importance of dog walking in relation to green spaces has been corroborated by other studies (Ward Thompson et al. 2002; Countryside Agency survey 2003), and cannot be underestimated. A study by Bauman et al. (2001) found that 41 per cent of dog owners walk, on av­erage, 18 minutes per week longer than people without dogs and that if all dog owners regularly walked their dogs, the resulting boost in physical fit­ness across the community would save Australia’s health care system about $175 million every year. In this study, focus groups identified dog fouling as being a key form of anti-social behaviour, so the tensions found else­where between dog-owners and other green space users seemed to surface here too (Ward Thompson et al. 2002). One of Tidy Britain Group’s sur­veys found that 80% of people questioned were "greatly concerned" by dog mess, an indication that problems caused by dog fouling are all too common (Tidy Britain Group 1999) and some type of balance has to be achieved. This, however, is not the only problem associated with dogs; a study by Madge (1997) showed that the fear of coming into contact with animals, and in particular dangerous dogs, was much higher for African- Caribbean and Asian groups than white groups.

Many respondents were members of conservation organisations but do not necessarily take an active part in conservation activities.

People think of nature in quite a broad way. They find the term “green space” a difficult term. Nature includes physical characteristics, wildlife and also perceptions and emotions, especially peacefulness and other terms associated with the calming or de-stressing value of nature. Professionals have contrasting views of the distinction between “nature” and “country­side”, for example, and they use the term “green space” more widely than the public understanding of the term.

Getting away from stress was associated with relaxation and nature – seeing it, being in natural places and learning about it. This suggests that there is a role for natural areas for stress reduction, reflected in other stud­ies where it has been shown that leisure activities in natural settings or ex­posure to natural features have important stress reduction or restoration ef­fects (Ulrich 1981, 1993; Sheets and Manzer 1991; Kaplan 1995; Parsons et al. 1998; Ulrich et al. 1991).

When talking about “social values” people tended to focus on “anti­social uses”. There is a lot of evidence that sites need to be well managed (but not over managed), welcoming, provide information and have a natu­ral appearance if people are to obtain the best value from them.

Sites close to home are preferred, especially by those who used to visit frequently when children. This importance of accessibility to places close to home compared with the site character is reflected in other research (Ward Thompson at al. 2002).

There are significant associations between the type and degree of use of green spaces by people now and how frequently they visited such sites when children. This suggests that if children are not being allowed or en­couraged to visit natural areas or other parks by themselves, they are less likely to develop a habit that will continue into adulthood. Those who had visited a lot as children were more likely to find magical and other positive qualities in nature, and to develop a closer relationship with it as part of their lifestyle, than those who did not.

Accessibility and welcome were rated highly and this seems to go with a sense of community ownership of green space, when there is a sense that it belongs to the community as much as to the formal or legal owners.

The sense of feeling uncomfortable or vulnerable was not very wide­spread overall, although it was most significant among the female and older respondents. This sense of vulnerability among women reflects the findings of other research (Burgess 1995; Ward Thompson et al. 2002). An international example of ways of dealing with this issue is the city of Montreal’s Women’s Safety Audit, which considers that it is vital not only to take into account the specifics of sexes but also the particulars of groups (elderly and disabled people, ethnic and sexual minorities) as well as in­volving men in their role of father, partner, son or potential victim (Michaud 1993).

The sites that attracted most positive responses to perceptions were the nature reserves, woodlands and urban parks. Local areas were important for some activities but country parks tended to score less highly. Re­sponses in relation to nature reserves were very positive compared with most other sites. This is partly the value of their being good for children to learn about nature, but other values, such as being associated with spiritual qualities, getting free from stress and feeling energetic are also positively associated with nature reserves. Woodlands share many of these attributes. Wild areas and country parks have the most associations with being bored but also have some positive values.