Blog public health Public Spaces Thematic thread wellbeing Whose green?

What is a public space without a public?

A warm lunchtime in Sheffield, a metropolis of half a million individuals in the north of England. It is late October and unseasonably sunny. In Weston Park, a Victorian park adjoining the College of Sheffield and a cluster of hospitals, a gaggle of students take heed to a speak. A lady walks briskly to an appointment. Couples unfold themselves on the grass to take in the sunshine. A small baby stamps to scare away the feral pigeons his mother has been feeding for his leisure.

A short walk away, out of one set of wrought-iron gates and in via another, is Crookes Valley Park. Gathered within the formal lake in the centre of the park is a group of kayakers. Beside a bench a middle-aged man fixes his bike. In the youngsters’s playground a Muslim lady in full veil pushes a toddler on a swing.

Throughout a primary street and downhill is the Ponderosa: a park that was by no means meant to be a park as a result of it was initially meant for housing. Its unintentional nature is mirrored in its identify: a nickname adopted by native youngsters after a ranch in a 1960s TV programme.

A horseshoe of woodland at the prime descends to a flat area of featureless grass surrounded by tower blocks, and to at least one aspect is a small orchard planted many years in the past by native environmental volunteers.

At this time there are fewer individuals. Rubbish in the woods exhibits where visitors have handed, an elderly white lady walks a small white canine, and a smattering of Chinese students saunter in the direction of the college campus.

Descending by way of these three parks is a journey by way of Sheffield’s socioeconomic tiers: Weston Park, proudly displaying its Inexperienced Flag award for excellence. Crookes Valley, ignored by substantial Victorian villas, lots of them now divided into scholar accommodation. And the Ponderosa, surrounded by housing for individuals on low incomes in one of many poorer neighbourhoods, under-appreciated and weak.

Photograph by Julian Dobson

Revisiting the Ponderosa in early December, on a shiny however cold weekday, raises the question of what kind of public space has no public – or what kind of public avoids public areas. A lady, wrapped head to toe towards the chilly, wheels her baby hurriedly throughout the green. The youngsters’s play space, the sheltered areas underneath the timber, and the soccer pitch with its rusting metallic goalposts are deserted. On a nearby church a sign reads: ‘All accessible lead has been replaced with non-lead materials’. Even the scrap metallic sellers haven’t any cause to be right here.

Behind the church is a small space of asphalt and grass, a few blue-painted benches to at least one aspect, harking back to South Yorkshire poet Gav Roberts’ description of ‘perfunctory parks for the oppressed’. But in Roberts’ poem, the oppressed find their own forms of play. Here everyone is inside.

Whose inexperienced, then, is the green of public space?

The formal plantings, ornamental timber and duck pond of Weston Park fit a traditional municipal mannequin of public parks, and the public – college students, hospital employees and visitors, native residents – seem to like it. Paths are lined with memorial benches, together with one describing Weston Park as a couple’s ‘favourite Sunday morning place’. Crookes Valley Park, formal, too, with a wooded border, attracts a steady move common and casual visitors. However the Ponderosa? Whose green may that be, and at what occasions?

Insiders, outsiders

Sheffield Council is doing its greatest to ensure the Ponderosa has one thing for everyone. In the autumn it put its plans for enhancements out to session, and posters and flyers inspired native residents to have their say. However consultations can by no means inform the complete story.

Keep lengthy sufficient in the wooded edges of the Ponderosa and you’ll see different types of belonging. This is a territory for blackbirds, robins, the occasional kestrel; residence to assorted rodents; the haunt of foxes, undoubtedly, and probably badgers and hedgehogs. In a world dealing with threats of local weather change and a ‘sixth great extinction’ of dwelling species, these unnoticed customers matter. They matter not only in and of themselves, but because even in neglected green spaces, there are humans who discover in them new connections and aid from the stresses of city life.

People who find themselves lonely, depressed or remoted can discover solace in the pure world. Incessantly this is in marginal and incidental areas that echo their own marginality.

The curious amalgams that create a city foreground questions each of the physical inside and out of doors, and social and economic insiders and outsiders. They drive us to ask what constitutes ‘nature’ in an urban context, and what it should develop into. The urban ecologist Marina Alberti (2016) describes cities as ‘coupled human-natural systems’. However the worth to humans of the more-than-human world is mediated by means of practices and rhetoric that legitimise or delegitimise the spaces where such interrelationships occur, and the activities which may greatest help connections with the more-than-human. The grounds of a former faculty, for example, are valued and used in another way when seen as a habitat for biodiversity than when seen as a improvement website for residential housing.

Photograph by Julian Dobson

Enhancing Wellbeing by way of Urban Nature (IWUN) is a three-year analysis challenge based mostly in Sheffield which seeks to explore the connections and practices linking human mental well being and the natural surroundings. Our findings each transcend and disturb the straightforward ‘green is good for you’ mantra. Sure, we have now found improvements in wellbeing as a direct results of noticing the natural world. However our analysis has also revealed the kaleidoscope of connections that go properly beyond what is typically on supply in a municipal park.

Our findings have highlighted, too, that green is not all the time good for you: places designed for rest and restoration can turn into landscapes of worry and nervousness.

All it takes is some vandalised play gear, uncleared canine faeces or needles, or youngsters on motorbikes. The youngsters on motorbikes, though, are finding their own connections with the pure world even while they’re perceived as damaging it.

So whereas the ’natural’ is mediated via humanly constructed amenities and actions – and a municipal park is nature contained and managed for human consumption – there is also robust evidence of human wishes to be a part of a wider world beyond human management, typically found in ‘urban interstices’ – a ‘reservoir of meanings, which may be constantly elaborated and explored’ (Jorgensen & Tylecote, 2007).

Legitimising and delegitimising discourses

City spaces are the place the ‘reciprocal interactions between ecological and evolutionary processes’ (Alberti, 2016) turn out to be fast, located and personal. As IWUN is revealing, these everyday interactions are supported or annoyed by means of totally different framings of their value and priority.

Discourses that legitimise inexperienced spaces as locations of worth are likely to concentrate on attributes of aesthetics, wellbeing and social cohesion.

Part of our research involved asking health, planning, greenspace and group practitioners what kind of interventions would greatest help mental wellbeing. Our analysis included stakeholder events, a questionnaire, focus teams and particular person interviews; 122 individuals took half. A number of the responses have been anticipated, supporting familiar conceptions of the position and value of inexperienced areas. For example, individuals described activities in inexperienced environments as methods of constructing confidence and vanity, offering routes to restoration from psychological illness or trauma:

Individuals who come to our service are often very isolated, they’ve lost their talent in socialising, not likely much happening of their lives, so coming helps individuals to work alongside different individuals in a means where they don’t even have to interact socially till they rebuild confidence, it’s a method that folks can truly do some activity and construct up their vanity… (Head of gardening challenge)

More usually, offering amenities that encourage the public to make use of green spaces was seen as a means of benefiting society at giant, each via socialisation and through reinvestment of time and power in the maintenance of pure spaces:

It’s a virtuous circle – you’ve received a nice cafe and lavatories so individuals come they usually spend longer, so there’s extra revenue and extra interest in doing stuff, more individuals be a part of Associates groups… (Public health official)

Photograph by Julian Dobson

Such rhetoric serves to valorise the ‘natural’ by emphasising its supporting qualities for human wellbeing. They legitimise investment by stressing desirable qualities – aesthetic pleasure, elevated confidence, economic exercise and civic engagement. Nevertheless, individuals additionally engaged in discourses – or reported discourses that they encountered – that devalued and delegitimised funding in ‘natural’ areas. Even fanatics for green spaces, for example, reported that residents in some neighbourhoods didn’t worth them and used them as dumping grounds:

We’ve been clearing sites up in Gleadless woodland, historic woodland, and as we’ve been cleaning it, they’ve been throwing the garbage out of the flats. (Parks officer)

Others commented that evidence of the advantages of natural areas was insufficient or not politically acceptable:

You’ll be able to put a really robust case collectively and it’s stacked up when it comes to worldwide proof but when it’s not politically the factor that is acceptable, it doesn’t happen. (Well being educational)

Discourses of political acceptability finally concern the choices of public bodies and the values hooked up to those decisions. By rationalising issues particularly phrases, actors select whose values they’ll adopt or recognise whose values maintain sway.

In a climate of monetary austerity imposed according to a neoliberal agenda that locations larger values on the position of markets and adheres to a ’small state’ ethos, the position of public providers is deemed to be considered one of dealing with emergencies where the market can’t respond – and the state of pure areas is not yet considered an emergency.

The clinching argument that legitimises or delegitimises the areas inside which people meet the more-than-human is most incessantly expressed when it comes to value and investment priorities. Clear hierarchies of action and experience emerge, as this change between two local authority planners in a focus group dialogue indicate:

Ethan: It’s the financial system so it’s, let’s get it going and every thing else can come second, and it really tries to return second because there isn’t space for third…

Finn: Typically the green stuff is within the third class, just both doesn’t happen or it’s so watered down that it’s meaningless.

Such discourses not solely marginalise care and funding in inexperienced and natural areas, but restrict what does happen.

In a self-reinforcing cycle, the concept of a good green space is framed around reputation and footfall. Whereas this helps some human connections with the pure world, it additionally sidelines the spaces and actions which might be perceived as less typical or less reputable.

So ‘whose green’ is it?

What emerges within the historic moment of neoliberal austerity and within the situated apply of ‘street level bureaucrats’ – the directors and officials whose job it is to make sense of public coverage and native pressures – is a kind of orderly retreat from engagement with the pure surroundings.

The place previous human/more-than-human relationships may need been characterised as exploitative (to serve the wants of capital) or controlling (to serve the wants of paperwork), discourses of inexperienced areas – or specific actions or amenities in those areas – as ‘nice to have’ or unaffordable sign a strategy of disengagement.

For public organisations looking for to survive in a climate of austerity, the answer to the question ‘whose green?’ might finally be ‘anyone’s but ours’. And yet for probably the most weak members of the public whose entry to restorative and enjoyable environments might rely upon long term look after inexperienced areas, an austerity climate produces the response, ‘Not ours either’. At its worst this will lead to a state of ‘nobody’s inexperienced’, spaces which are uncared for and unused, where the relationship between people and the more-than-human world is minimised as a result of humans have lost the capacity to manage them and not understand them as protected.

One other answer, and one which will already be observed, is ‘green for some’. On this case the ‘some’ are usually not solely the better-off, although they’re often included. They are those who, by advantage of pre-existing engagement with the pure world, technique of entry, and assets of time and power, choose to visit inexperienced areas and take part of their care and upkeep. Those who may wrestle in green areas because of a lack of confidence, psychological sickness, physical disability, or because they want care and help usually tend to stay excluded.

Where engagement by the public and by public our bodies declines, the consequence for the more-than-human world is not certainly one of ‘rewilding’ but a totally different set of human/more-than-human relationships: green areas used as dumps and as refuges for these deemed delinquent or undesirable.

However such individuals need and worth pure areas as a lot as household picnic parties do; rats and mice are as ‘natural’ as squirrels and robins.

The human and more-than-human proceed to co-evolve, but their entanglements and trajectories might turn out to be much less predictable. Regardless of the complexities of those relationships, they call for attention — and a spotlight, in occasions of urban austerity, tends to be an early casualty.


Alberti, M. 2016. Cities that assume like planets: Complexity, resilience, and innovation in hybrid ecosystems. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Jorgensen, A ., & Tylecote, M. (2007) Ambivalent landscapes – wilderness in the city interstices. Landscape Research 32(four): 443–462.