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Open spaces, inviting places?

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 26

Dr Netta Weinstein, senior lecturer at Cardiff University’s School of Psychology, and Brian Quinn, advisor at Design Council Cabe, talk to PSE’s David Stevenson about the impact green spaces in urban areas can have on social cohesion and crime reduction.

American biologist Dr Edward O. Wilson once said that “nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”. 

But what impact can nature and people’s proximity to it have on community spirit and crime? 

New research, published in the journal BioScience, suggests that nature is associated with stronger communities and a reduction in crime. The researchers surveyed 2,079 adults aged 22 to 65 across the UK and used land-use databases to compare their access to gardens, parks, woods, meadows and farmland with local crime rates. 

‘Strong connection’ 

After accounting for factors including socioeconomic deprivation and population density, the team found strong connections relating to a sense of community and crime. 

The authors found that people’s experiences of local nature could explain 8% variance in survey responses about perceptions of community cohesion. 

The researchers describe this as “a striking finding given that individual predictors such as income, gender, age, and education together accounted for only 3%” of the variance. 

The research took account of and controlled for an “extensive list of potential social and personal confounds” – alternative variables that could also influence the results, such as community-level and individual socioeconomic status. 

Lead author Dr Netta Weinstein, senior lecturer at Cardiff University’s School of Psychology, told PSE: “What maybe surprised me most was how robust the effects of experiencing nature and engaging with nature are, at the individual level on social cohesion.” 

The study also noted that objective measures of the amount of green space or farmland accessible in people’s neighbourhoods accounted for 4% additional variance in crime rates. 

The “positive impact of local nature on neighbours’ mutual support may discourage crime, even in areas lower in socioeconomic factors” added the researchers. 

Dr Weinstein told PSE that one of the findings, which is more relevant in terms of thinking about planning and building, is that “the effects held up quite across both rural or suburban contexts but also urban contexts”. 

“So developing, planning and putting in resources for natural spaces that are accessible and appealing – encouraging people to engage in their areas around them – seems to be advantageous in terms of developing strong communities,” she said.

Building for Life 

Brian Quinn, advisor at Design Council Cabe, discussed how local authorities and developers are being encouraged to use Building for Life 12, the government-endorsed industry standard for well-designed homes and neighbourhoods, to create good places to live. 

The standard notes that developers should consider how spaces can be designed to be multi-functional, serving as wide an age group as possible and how they could contribute towards enhancing biodiversity. 

Building for Life approval is designed to give the homebuyer confidence that important design elements have been checked during the planning process. These include details such as adequate car parking, safe street design and access to amenities.

“A key part of Building for Life 12 is the quality and attractiveness of public space,” said Quinn. “Things such as children’s play areas, community event areas and somewhere to sit when the weather is nice. That is absolutely critical. A lot of people do want this.” 

He added that in previous research Cabe and the Home Office investigated the crime experience of contemporary housing schemes, particularly those that would be considered by Cabe and the design community to represent good design. 

Feedback from design, planning and crime prevention professionals pointed to a “lack of evidence and learning available on how such schemes were performing and confusion in current design guidance”. 

But the research did highlight the success of some design-led regeneration projects, such as Castle Vale in Birmingham, in areas blighted by crime. In this instance, it was noted that an “unbroken perimeter block layout set out a very clear definition of public fronts of buildings and private amenity space behind, with no rear access, improving the security of dwellings and back gardens”.

Desire to lead through design 

Quinn told us that there is a desire across local authorities to develop urban schemes that have a positive effect on the local community. 

“One of the things local authorities are wanting is to make sure that the housing that comes forward is of high quality, it is a positive addition to the existing places they are being built next to, and a lot of developers are understanding the value of good quality urban design and landscape,” he said. 

“I also think there is an issue of having the right scrutineering of schemes, using things like Building for Life 12, so that a developer and local authority can work together to produce the best possible scheme for the site. 

“It is a much more important issue than it was in the past. It can also be a selling point for developers as they can talk about the quality of public space, and I think it is the sort of thing people are interested in when buying into a development.” 

Overall masterplan 

Quinn also noted the importance of local authorities having an ‘overall masterplan’ when it comes to several schemes being developed in close proximity. 

He stated that if there isn’t a joined-up approach then there can be a swathe of new developments with very little provision for good quality public spaces and facilities. 

“In those situations, particularly in relation to urban extensions, we would very much support the use of an overall masterplan that says that even if different developers develop different phases, there has to be a coherent plan that says there will be good quality public spaces, of different sizes, through the scheme,” said Quinn. 

The benefits of using a well-designed scheme can make people feel safer, Quinn added, especially when people see others walking through well-lit streets, sitting on park benches, and using public spaces effectively. “It generally attracts other people.” 

Further research 

Discussing her findings into nature and social cohesion, Dr Weinstein said that there are still plenty more research opportunities to build on the data gathered. 

She added that one of the biggest limitations to the experiment is the correlational nature of the data. “The other limitation, from my perspective, is that we looked at green space broadly,” said Dr Weinstein. “We really just looked at green space, the amount of green space that was around. And when we asked people about their experiences of nature, we just asked them how much do you see green spaces, how often do you visit green spaces and how accessible are green spaces to you. 

“We looked at nature in a very broad-stroke kind of way. That is a limitation in terms of policy recommendations we can make as a result of this study. 

“But my goal for the research in the future is that we get people thinking not just about wellbeing and the personal benefits, which are very important, but how natural spaces impact the community as a whole: living and functioning together.”



Euan Hall   06/01/2016 at 15:17

agree completely with the author about the value/importance of open space. The one issue that doesn't appear to have been picked up in about ensuring that part of the design of any scheme must consider how the long term maintenance will be funded. without this funding many of the benefits will be short lived and indeed , lack of maintenance is known to cause blight.

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