Social perception - Practical considerations

Whereas the social perception of greenspaces will not always be negative, greenspace developers need to consider that social opposition is likely to emerge if a project fails to respond, at least partially, to social expectations. Sustainable greenspace projects need to incorporate social concerns alongside environmental and economic ones. Ultimately, greenspaces and urban developments need to respond to society’s definitions of needs and wants.

Background

Urban greening projects can raise numerous expectations about their potential contribution to community well-being. Some entail the provision of environmental services to deprived areas. Others involve the restoration of derelict or contaminated land for the benefit of the local community. Most of these projects affect a wide range of stakeholders with specific views on how such development should be carried through.

Often, scientists, planners and the general public disagree about the extent and impact of the risks posed by greenspace developments. Research on the perception of risks has shown that members of the public tend to be worried about long-term environmental risks, the lack of personal control, and associated equity issues, while scientists and planners may focus their concerns on minimising of the probability of adverse effects associated to a particular development (Renn, 2004). These differences in perception may complicate the dialogue between the promoters of a greenspace and its users, and limit the social benefits of greenspace.

Frequently, the public develop social and environmental concerns not previously anticipated by greenspace managers. Environmental risks are defined within a local context that may escape the analysis of specialists. In general, local residents in an urban area may be very sensitive to spatial changes, particularly when they directly affect their daily life and experiences.

Addressing the sustainable challenge in greenspaces requires professionals to involve stakeholders’ perceptions and knowledge of the problem being addressed, and to engage in an ongoing dialogue with general public (Dodds and Venables, 2005). Including the public in greenspace development at an early stage not only improves its acceptance within local communities, but also adds to the knowledge base of greenspace managers, aiding the adaptation of a project to its context. Researchers have developed different deliberative and participation models that allow for the incorporation of stakeholders’ concerns at earlier stages of a project, working towards consensus between different parties (Renn, 1998).

Measures to favour consensus-seeking among different stakeholders should not be confused with measures directed at preventing the emergence of social debate around greenspaces. Conflicts may create a platform for debate about social priorities – controversies are powerful stimuli for policy learning and change for sustainable planning (Owens, 2004). While sustainable greenspace projects require the incorporation of social demands, they should not be used as tools to silence the public debates necessary for the advancement of sustainable environmental and planning policies.

Practical considerations

Managing social perceptions on greenspaces requires a deep understanding of the perspectives of different public groups. Psychological research has focused on individual perceptions of risk, to account for patterns of risk perception. However, for the purposes of greenspace development, it is important to understand the contextual and social factors that determine how people make sense of risk (Bickerstaff and Walker, 2001). This may require a community-involvement approach, or enrolling the local public in the development of the project.

From a legal point of view, the right to participate in environmental decision-making is enshrined in the Aarhus Convention: the EU adopted Directive 2003/35/EC (PDF-132K), providing for public participation in plans and programmes relating to the environment.

Case study

Thames Chase Community Forest

The Thames Chase Community Forest is a network of 48 community woodland sites stretching from Dagenham east to Brentwood. Operational for a decade, the Community Forest is a partnership working together to bring greenspaces to urban communities around London.

Ingrebourne Hill is owned and managed by the Forestry Commission as part of the Thames Chase partnership, and is one of the latest additions to the Community Forest via a site-management agreement. It opened in June 2008. The site is used regularly by a wide public for activities such as dog-walking, cycling, jogging, football and bird-watching. Public interest, and the strategic positioning of this ex-landfill site, moved the Forestry Commission to include it in the network of community woodlands.

Consultation has been central to the development of Ingrebourne Hill. Forestry Commission England conducted community consultations between April and June 2007 to determine what local residents would like to gain from the Ingrebourne Hill development. Information was gathered through meetings and local presentations about the site; a questionnaire distributed to nearby households; and a questionnaire distributed on-site and electronically via the website. The comments received were very positive and helped to develop a package of ideas about how development of the site could benefit the local community’s well-being. The questionnaires suggested that interviewees would like to see benches, a viewpoint, a wildflower meadow and a picnic area in the site. Few interviewees suggested items such as artwork or a water feature. The questionnaires pointed out that use of the site for relaxation was a top priority. The following uses were most common, in order of importance: relaxation, exercise, cycling, dog-walking and walking.

Development managers used these views to design a development plan for Ingrebourne Hill including features such as walks (4.1 km), biking trails (3 km) and a mountain-bike course (1.3 km), two play areas and a picnic spot. The development included a viewpoint at the highest point of Ingrebourne Hill, from which visitors will be able to see many well known London landmarks for a bird’s-eye view of London.

The Ingrebourne Hill development is a very interesting case of how local views have been addressed during the project development stage. Local views have helped to design a development of greatest use to the local communities. The Ingrebourne Hill project team has developed numerous ways of engaging with local people, such as a mountain-bike competition, and their own newsletter, Ingrebourne Views, while making themselves available for a continuous dialogue with the public.

Services

Forest Research’s Social and Economic Research Group has expertise in socio-economic research, mainly using a phenomenological and social constructionist perspective often complemented with an institutional perspective. Work includes research on local communities and institutional stakeholders in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina to establish how different stakeholders and local communities perceive the pollution problem related to coal-ash disposal, and which options they favour for the improved management and remediation of the disposal sites. Regarding access to greenspaces, the Group has extensive experience in analysing differential patterns of access to forest and natural resources.

The Urban Regeneration and Greenspace Partnership (URGP) provides advice to the Forestry Commission and other national and international agencies on environmental, social and economic issues related to woodlands and greenspaces. Guidelines and tools have been developed for decision-making on brownfield remediation and restoration. The Social and Economic Research Group has also developed several methods to assess social concerns for the management and restoration of contaminated land.

Further information

Bickerstaff, K. and Walker, G. (2001). Public understandings of air pollution: the ‘localisation’ of environmental risks. Global Environmental Change 11, 133–145.

Dodds, R. and Venables, R., eds (2005). Engineering for Sustainable Development: Guiding Principles. Royal Academy of Engineering, London.

HM Government (2005). Securing the Future – UK Government Sustainable Development Strategy. TSO (The Stationery Office), Norwich.

Owens, S. (2004). Siting, sustainable development and social priorities. Journal of Risk Research 7, 101–114.

Renn, O. (1998). The role of risk perception on risk management. Reliability Engineering and Systems Safety 59, 49–62.

Renn, O. (2004). Perception of risks. Toxicology Letters 149, 405–413.

Defra: Aarhus Convention – Environmental Democracy