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Parks and prejudice

By Bridget Snaith
The predominantly white landscape profession is in danger of excluding members of ethnic minorities from the parks it designs, if it does not address some preconceptions.

Natural England’s study published in February1 again found that affluent white British people visit ‘natural environments’ far more than people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. The most-used places are parks, playgrounds and playing fields – bread and butter for landscape architects. And landscape professionals in the UK are also predominantly white British. Does this mean that we, as professionals, are creating landscape spaces that appeal most to white British people, and overlooking the preferences of other ethnic groups?

My recent PhD research in east London showed that, although we don’t mean to, that is what we are doing.

Many theorists in post-colonial and race studies describe how white Westerners understand their values as ‘universal truths’. This kind of thinking underpins ideas of universal beauty.

This thinking is not new. Researchers in the US proposed 40 years ago that people of different ethnicities preferred different kinds of green spaces for cultural reasons. When consulting on landscape projects with diverse communities in London over the years, I also found that ideals of beauty or leisure activity that are considered best practice aren’t always shared across cultures. In 2010, CABE’s study Community Green2 highlighted the under-representation of minority groups in parks, identifying ethnicity as being more influential than income. I wondered whether ‘culture clash’ between users and those ‘producing’ park space, might be a factor.

The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in multicultural east London provided an excellent case study. My research started in autumn 2011. I used mixed methods, some quantitative and some qualitative. These included a questionnaire survey to establish differences in landscape taste; interviews and focus groups to explore reasons; and, once the park opened, spatial analysis and user counting.

A survey with nine images of publicly accessible landscapes in the UK in different styles asked ‘If all these parks were within 10 minutes walk of your home, which would you want to visit most?’. There was no restriction on the numbers of images chosen, and no ranking was required. The average number of images selected was three. If all were equally preferred, they would be selected by 33%.

The images can’t be reproduced here, but are referred to as follows:
Brownian – a sweeping summer pastoral landscape of green lawn, mature trees and serpentine lake;
St James’ Park – a well maintained Victorian park with lawn, ornamental trees, and bench seat overlooking a fenced pond with fountain;
Perennial flowers – a view across a contemporary perennial border in a mature public park;
Marsh – a timber walkway through an expansive green reedbed;
Neoclassical – wide lawns, mature trees and neoclassical public park buildings;
Thames Barrier – a French designed modern landscape with lines of planting, lawns and hedging;
Richmond Park – an expansive view across winter parkland, long grass, bare trees, a dark steely sky;
Geometric – a knot/Islamic garden of colourful formal flowers within low hedged beds to a complex symmetrical arrangement with a central fountain;
Ecological – a wildflower meadow with a CorTen steel sculpture in the middle distance.

A total of 232 surveys were returned. Most respondents were aged between 18 and 50 and had spent all or most of their childhood in the UK. The largest ethnic group claimed by participants was white British, representing 20% of returns.

A total of 45%, spread across the ethnic groups, had attended university. I analysed the results for statistical significance, then assessed them for the strength of any association. St James’ Park and the geometric garden were the most popular, chosen by more than 50% of respondents.

Age had some influence, but less than gender, or education. Supporting findings of other studies, ethnicity had the greatest influence on preferences, set out in the diagram below. White British people most preferred loose, naturalistic plant forms, and informal spatial arrangements. For the other ethnic groups that I sampled, naturalistic plant forms were generally least popular.

The ‘ecological’ landscape was the least popular across all the analysis, selected by only 15% of respondents. It was however equal in popularity to St James’s Park among white British university graduates, being selected by 50% of this group. This association was the strongest found in the data. University attendees seemed generally to prefer ‘wilder’ landscapes, but a combined analysis of education and ethnicity showed this pattern was significant only for white British participants. Many other studies have found that educated and powerful white Anglo Europeans prefer ‘romantic’ or ecocentric landscapes. This preference is not universally shared, even within the white majority culture.

Landscape tastes might well influence the use of some spaces for some ethnic groups; however it wasn’t the only factor in play. The nearby Victoria Park was significantly under used by its surrounding ethnic minority population3. Yet my research found that the most consistently preferred image across all the ethnicities was of a similarly styled park. Focus groups provided an opportunity to understand more about the survey’s findings.

Focus groups
Focus groups allow observation of group dynamics, and can help identify which views or experiences are personal or controversial; and, which might be shared or normal. With around six members in each group, views weren’t taken as generalisable, but where statements made were supported by other findings, these were seen as potential cultural norms.

All participants used, and spoke positively about, parks. Parks were good places for active recreation, especially for and with children. A large urban Victorian park, such as St James’s Park, was felt to offer something for everyone in good weather.

There were however notable differences in understandings across different groups of parks, their nature and their role in everyday life.

Participants with Somalian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage described a relaxing and restorative function for park space.

‘Open spaces,... are for you to enjoy, to unwind,... It’s your escape place,... it is a place to socialise, to have fun, get fresh air, yeah. Even for myself. I see other mums. It’s good!’ (Victoria Park)

British Caribbean participants embraced city life and sociability. Parks were for activity. British landscape and greenery did not in itself have an effect on wellbeing for most. They didn’t see the point of just walking around, looking. Not liking nature was uncontroversial in this group.

White British participants did seek restorative ‘escape’ in nature, in wilder larger-scale places – in country parks, or beyond London.

British Pakistani participants also used wider landscapes for leisure. They made use of National Parks, Epping Forest and Wanstead Flats for family outings. They saw scenic nature as a restorative leisure resource, and relished opportunities for their children to interact with wildlife.

In contrast, several British Bangladeshi participants vehemently disliked ‘wild’ spaces, ‘nature’ and ‘the (great) outdoors’. Most found winter vegetation extremely unattractive and dead. However, they liked summer landscapes, and generally associated greenery with restorative ‘freshness’.

Many participants knew the Lea Valley’s marshes, canals and riverside. They lived nearby and had been taken several times by schools. Only white British participants spoke positively about the area. Others found it dirty, uninteresting and unsafe.

These views from a small sample of local residents indicate that nature and green space is not a universal restorative regardless of configuration. They also challenge assumptions that proximity to or familiarity with a natural environment, or even education, will encourage visits if spaces do not provide or promote the experience or quality of facilities desired.

Most participants had felt intimidated in parks but the extent to which fear was an inhibitor varied. British Caribbeans were defiant. South Asian participants felt powerless, and concern for safety was a major constraint on their children. Muslim participants in particular felt unhappy about uncontrolled dogs. Many Muslims consider a dog’s nose and mouth to be unclean, and not supposed to touch the body or clothes.

‘I know everyone says “It’s alright, he’s friendly.” Yeah but I’m not friendly with it, and the children are scared! Hollow Ponds, there’s just too many dogs. They’re not even on any leads, they just let them loose!’ (Leyton)

A lack of regulation of dogs in particular was described as the main reason for avoiding Victoria Park.

‘I hate Victoria Park. It is possibly the worst park for me. There are so many dogs in Victoria Park. If you go there, there are dogs and they aren’t on leads. They’re just running round. I can’t handle it. It’s my worst nightmare. It’s going to hell for me. Victoria Park is like going to hell!’ (Bromley by Bow)

Not all incidents with dogs were misunderstandings. Participants described how dogs were used to intimidate them and exert spatial and social dominance. They felt that institutional support for dog-owners rendered them powerless. The disjunction between their lived experiences of chaos, fear and oppression, and the restorative serene green spaces idealised by Muslim participants in the earlier discussion was stark.

Space ‘producers’, tended to emphasise technical difficulty, challenges of delivery and funding, and how the finished design had resolved competing needs, for building space and flood risk management for example. There were no doubts among those interviewed about the appeal of the ‘wilder’ ecological spaces of the North Park. Most people, it was felt, would enjoy walking in these beautiful ‘Picturesque’ spaces, looking at wetland, wildflower meadows and space for wildlife. Some questioned whether programmed spaces like the play space and community buildings needed to be added in at all.

When I raised the early findings of the park preference survey with designer interviewees, there was surprise at the popularity of the geometric garden and the image of Thames Barrier Park. The South Park’s more active, gardenesque character was proposed as offering spaces more like a St James’s Park, a finding supported in the spatial analysis.

Access by dogs was also raised. Dogs have access throughout QEOP, but only on leads. Banning dogs from any of the park space was framed by interviewees as unfairly restricting a reasonable use expectation.

User counts
I made user counts on warm dry days through the spring and summer of 2014, when access by all groups would be at its peak. Ethnic group was not recorded, but I made counts based on whether I considered users likely to claim a white or other ethnicity. The user differences between the wilder North park, and more programmed South park were dramatic, with a better balance in the South park.

My research concludes that park use varies by ethnicity due to the interaction between social tensions and differing cultural norms, some of which find concrete expression in park space. Park design and management institutionally supports some users’ rights to space at the expense of others, partly by failing to recognise the excluding potential of dominant cultural values.

I argue that we can and should encourage greater diversity of use of ‘natural environments’ by engaging honestly with cultural difference, and building diversity into open-space provision.

Dr Bridget Snaith is a senior lecturer at UEL.
  1. HUNT, A., STEWART, D., BURT, J. & DILLON, J. 2016. Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment: a pilot to develop an indicator of visits to the natural environment by children – Results from years 1 and 2 (March 2013 to February 2015). Natural England Commissioned Reports, Number 208.
  2. CABE Space, 2010. Community Green: Using Local Spaces to Tackle Inequality and Improve Health, London: CABE Space.
  3. Heritage Lottery Fund, 2012. Visitor Statistics in Support of Lottery Applications under the Urban Parks Programme, London: Unpublished.

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