“Wild urban woodlands”: placing people’s perceptions and preferences first

Expert debate on “wild woodlands”

Multifunctionality in urban forestry is about opting for the right combina­tion of urban-forest functions in the right place. Limited urban-forest re­sources have to meet the high and diverse demands of thousands and sometimes millions of local users. Combining social and ecological de­mands is a key task from the perspective of sustainable urban-forest man­agement (e. g. Volk 1995). In this context, the meaning and role of “wild urban woodland” as a concept should be discussed (see also Kowarik 2005).

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary of English (Mer- riam-Webster 2003), “wild” as an adjective can mean “living in a state of nature and not ordinarily tame or domesticated” or “growing or produced without human care or aid”. With reference to land, “wild” relates to “not inhabited or cultivated” or “not amenable to human habitation or cultiva­tion” (as in “wilderness”).

Using the term “wild” to refer to the absence of human interference or cultivation in an urban, highly cultivated context may seem problematic. On the other hand, experience has shown that there is room for natural processes as well as original natural vegetation in urban areas (Goode 1995), for example, in the case of vegetation colonisation on former indus­trial land (Kowarik 2005).

Expert debate on the meaning of “natural” in a general forestry context is ongoing. Peterken (1995), for example, refers to a spectrum between to­tally natural and totally artificial when classifying woodlands. The term “semi-natural woodland” is often used in a British context, referring, for example, to woodlands that resemble those that would emerge after natural colonisation or succession (while recognising a certain amount of human influence). Also applied is the term “ancient woodland”, which according to Rackham (1990), refers to woodlands dating back at least to 1600. In the German-language literature, the primeval forest is mostly described as Urwald (Senatsverwaltung… 2001).

Bell et al. (in press) discuss difficulties in distinguishing between “for­est”, “woodland” and “park” in an urban-forestry context, with “forest” traditionally referring to unenclosed, wild areas; “park” to unclosed, man­aged areas; and “woodlands” to something between the two. Another re­lated debate involves indigenous and exotic vegetation.

Kowarik (2005) differentiates among four types of “nature” when study­ing, for example, urban woodlands. These types differ in terms of the level of human interference and similarity to original vegetation. “Nature of the first kind” includes all natural, untouched woodlands, while natural proc­esses are also central to “nature of the fourth kind” which relates to wood­lands that have developed spontaneously on urban-industrial sites.

These discussions, however, are very much expert-based, focusing on ecological and management considerations, and closely linking “wild” with “natural”. As we have seen, however, a key characteristic of urban forestry is that it places its primary beneficiaries, i. e. local resident com­munities, centrally. Benefits are not only generated for local communities, but the aim is often also to achieve empowerment of these communities in urban-forestry decision-making. If these local residents play such a crucial role, what then does the “wild urban woodland” mean to them?

“Wild urban woodland”: user perceptions and preferences

Studies from around the world (e. g. Kaplan and Kaplan 1989; Van den Berg and De Vries 2000) show that residents prefer urban environments with nature over those without nature. Experiencing and enjoying nature is often a main motivation for visiting forests and other green areas, urban as well as rural. A nation-wide survey of the Dutch population (Nas 1998), for example, showed that 91% of respondents mentioned “enjoying natural beauty” as a main argument for visiting the Dutch forests, many of which can be considered “urban”. In terms of perceived natural value, larger for­est and nature areas outside cities tend to “score” higher in perception studies than inner-city green areas (Van den Berg and De Vries 2000). Wiggers and Gadet (1996) showed that the residents of Amsterdam ea­gerly use green spaces when these are present in their neighbourhood, but also that inner-city green has primarily become a setting for social activi­ties among young singles rather than being appreciated for its natural val­ues. Thus preferences with regards to urban-forest benefits differ accord­ing to social and cultural differences, as well as location.

That urban residents hold very different interpretations of the meaning of “wild” and “nature/natural” in an urban-forestry context is illustrated by two examples from outside Europe. A resident focus-group study in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand (Kilvington and Wilkinson 1999) on community attitudes toward natural vegetation in the urban environment showed that the terms “wild” and “natural” had highly confused meanings for many participants. A focus-group study among youths in the city-state of Singapore (Kong et al. 1999) found this diversity of attitude and percep­tion as well, as nature was described both as “unpredictable and danger­ous” (with reference to faraway places) and as “safe and fun” (when refer­ring to the orderliness of well-maintained nature in the city). Most young Singaporeans interviewed showed little interest in or affinity with nature, most likely because of limited daily contact with nature as a “familiar” part of the living environment.

When users’ preferences of urban forests are considered, factors other than “naturalness” (in terms of absent or limited human interference) may be more important. Roovers et al. (2002) studied visitor perceptions and expectations towards forests in central Belgium, moving along a gradient of increasing urbanisation. A majority of the visitors (59%) surveyed pre­ferred mixed forests, and 78.9% strongly favoured some or high variation in forest layers. Diversity was also appreciated in terms of variation in to­pography. But these aspects are not unique to “natural” or “wild” forests from an expert or ecological perspective. Interviewed residents of the Bul­garian city of Stara Zagora, for example, described exotic cedar stands in a local woodland park as being the closest to their perception of the Bulgar­ian “natural forest” (Van Herzele, personal communication).

Recognising local users’ perceptions and preferences of “wild urban woodlands” is necessary as part of the urban-forestry approach, but will not make the debate less complicated. “Wild” can have many different meanings to people, as has been briefly illustrated here. In line with differ­ent perceptions of “wild urban woodlands”, different roles and benefits will be in focus.

Updated: October 2, 2015 — 3:37 am