This week, Dr Claire Bynner and Benjamin Murphy bring us an insight blog exploring why some young people are afraid to spend time in their local greenspaces – and how this can be changed.
A growing body of international evidence demonstrates the positive relationship between engagement with greenspace and the wellbeing of children and young people. Research exploring motivations for visiting greenspace finds that access is affected by childhood exposure to nature, as well as feelings of nature connectedness (Bell et al 2014; Ward Thompson et al. 2008).
The evidence shows that access to, and use of, greenspace is mediated by social relationships, including perceptions of social cohesion and inclusion (Seamen et al 2010) and positioning and power dynamics in relation to particular social groups (Dinnie et al 2013; Leas 2008).
People who are socio-economically deprived are less likely to visit green spaces, and recent research found that these inequalities were sustained, and may have been exacerbated, during COVID-19 government restrictions (Burnett et al. 2021).
Socially and economically deprived areas are less likely to have access to high quality greenspace, and children and young people are more likely to live close to vacant and derelict land, with an associated negative effect on mental health and wellbeing (Garvin et al 2013; South et al 2018).
Feeling unsafe in local greenspaces
Even in contexts where children and young people live close to high quality greenspace, such as woodlands and parks, they experience multiple intersecting barriers to accessing urban nature (Groundworks 2021).
Girls and young women often report feeling unsafe when spending time in green spaces (Walker & Clark 2020) and this insecurity is higher for those who identify as disabled or LGBTQ (Girlguiding 2020).
Since the media coverage of the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, there are concerns that women and girls don’t feel safe being outside.
Experiences of harassment or abuse can also be barriers for children and young people from ethnic minority backgrounds. The perception that these spaces are dominated by white people and the experience of racism in these spaces can have an impact for several generations (Collier, 2019; Snaith 2015).
Studies of the experiences of people with mobility impairments have found that lack of information about accessibility and physical constraints can lead to exclusion from greenspaces (Corazon 2019; Inckle 2019).
Using greenspaces as places for responsible exploration
Our early findings from research in high poverty neighbourhoods in Scotland, post-lockdown, has found that children and young people want to use greenspaces as places for responsible socialising and exploration, and they recognise the benefits to their wellbeing:
For me, it helps me calm down. Like, obviously I like listening to the birds and not the cars, and not the people. It’s like I can actually focus on myself and relax.”Audrey, 25, Castlemilk
Despite this, there are significant barriers for children and young people in accessing these spaces.
Firstly, greenspaces can be perceived as places of risk due to historical associations with violence and threat. Castlemilk has experienced high levels of knife crime over the last 20 years, although recent national evidence has shown a general reduction in violent crime.
Despite this, high poverty areas still experience more violent crime, and people in the areas where CNS works still feel unsafe leaving their home (SVRU 2018). These associations can be inter-generational and within households and are manifest in a profound sense of being unsafe outdoors and in public space:
This place used to be really, really bad. Like, when I was a wean, way younger than them, you used to have to walk through here with a… some sort of weapon in your pocket.”Audrey, 25, Castlemilk
I currently don’t like going outside, mainly because of those things. It’s quite scarring to a child, not being able to go out with your friends or anything.”Milo, 14, Lanark
Being outside alone was regarded as dangerous:
You just wouldn’t go out [on your own].”Carly, 17, Castlemilk
Local greenspaces were associated with physical threat and also dangerous or unsafe litter – such as broken glass and syringes, as well as vandalism.
It is the young ones up here, they ruin everything. They vandalise stuff and it’s a big problem.”Focus group participant, Castlemilk
Lack of lighting in greenspaces
Lack of lighting meant these spaces aren’t used at all outside of daylight hours.
Young people in Castlemilk expressed their exasperation at the issue, and this translated into disinterest in finding solutions beyond increased security and fencing off these spaces. During CNS focus group work, researchers asked young people about the solutions to these issues around greenspace, and there were few ideas beyond increased security and better fencing off of parks and greenspaces.
This was recognised by the young people as being both unrealistic and undesirable, highlighting the enduring impact of negative associations between greenspace and personal security for young people.
What can be done to encourage positive associations and engagement with local greenspace?
- Greenspaces can be places to build capability by providing people with opportunities to be challenged (in a safe space) and to feel relaxed. Being involved in outdoor activities can be a great way to build confidence, but also to breakdown negative associations (especially historical ones) with a place. Experiences in nature can build positive relationships to greenspaces.
- Investing in lighting that works and is maintained. A seemingly obvious issue is that darkness is associated with danger.
- Regular outdoor learning could be included in the secondary school day to build positive associations and overcome perceptions of greenspace as other / unwelcoming / ‘not for us’. There is a connection to be made here between the lack of space in the secondary curriculum for outdoor learning, and the huge drop-off in youth engagement in greenspaces, after the age of twelve (Beames, 2006; Christie et al., 2014; Christie et al., 2016; Mannion et al., 2015).
Spaces of wellbeing for children and young people
Our initial findings from research in Castlemilk demonstrate the importance of attending to local greenspace as spaces of wellbeing for children and young people.
Greenspaces can become spaces of wellbeing (Fleuret & Atkinson 2007), but they need to be carefully managed and designed to support children and young people in the following ways:
- As spaces of security – providing a sense of physical and emotional safety and addressing food insecurity. Community food growing initiatives can actively involve people in choices and provide social activities around food growing and eating. Seen as a strategy to reduce food poverty and achieve other outcomes especially around improving social health and wellbeing (Dinnie et al 2017; Guardian 2019). Food growing spaces also offer social and psychological benefits – tackling loneliness, improving mental health and wellbeing, to learn and share, and bring greater community cohesion. Recent research shows a desire for more spaces like these in Glasgow (Dinnie et al., 2020).
- As therapeutic spaces – tackling historical negative associations and trauma. Greenspaces can provide healing and improvements to mental health. A wide range of therapeutic programmes currently exists. These are sometimes described as ‘green care’ and include activities such as outdoor education, outdoor adventure, wilderness programmes, outdoor woodland learning, nature-based mindfulness and conservation activities. Although these activities are not usually associated with the greenspaces in the local neighbourhood which are more immediately accessible to children and young people (Barton et al., 2016; Haubenhofer et al., 2010; Jepson et al., 2010; Masterton et al 2021; Robinson et al., 2020).
- As spaces of capability – drawing on Sen (1992), social and physical space may enable or hinder wellbeing through self-fulfilment. Greenspaces offer a plethora of interdisciplinary learning opportunities and give space for non-conventional teaching to happen. Research has shown that those marginalised in traditional classroom settings (those with additional learning needs or behavioural problems) can benefit most from outdoor learning. Outdoor learning can be a site of expression for those with lacking literacy and numeracy skills (Munro et al., 2018; Pearce et al., 2006; Browning and Rigolon, 2019; Dadvand et al., 2015).
- As integrative spaces – social associations, especially those that operate at the local scale, can have an impact on many dimensions of wellbeing (Fleuret & Séchet 2002). Greenspaces, through their possibility for immersive activity, can foster an increased sense of social connection and care for neighbourhoods. Greater access to greenspace fosters social cohesion and appreciation of the local.
The security, therapeutic, and capability role of local greenspace presents a key challenge and an opportunity. Greenspace interventions that are explicitly focused on building these aspects of wellbeing are critical. If children and young people feel safer in these spaces, they offer a way of building community, increasing confidence, and ultimately improving wellbeing.
Authors: Dr Claire Bynner & Benjamin Murphy
Acknowledgements: With thanks to Dr Jane Cullingworth for review and editing.
How to cite this blog article: Bynner, C., Murphy, B., (2021) Improving local greenspaces for children and young people. Glasgow: Children’s Neighbourhoods Scotland.
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