Urban areas are growing at incredible speeds worldwide, and there is an increasing concern about the relationships between urbanisation, environmental threats, the quality of the living environment and human health. A healthy living environment is a prerequisite for good health, in which so-called environmental positives, defined as elements to which exposure has a positive impact on health, might exert a positive influence on health. Public green spaces (PGSs) are an example of these environmental positives. The physical and mental benefits of interacting with nature are well-established in literature. From a health perspective, it is important that people use PGSs in urban areas, meaning we must understand why they are potentially under-used.
To be used, PGSs should firstly be available and accessible; secondly and crucially, they should also be perceived as attractive by potential users.
Hence, to develop effective strategies to promote the use of PGSs, it is fundamental to obtain a deeper understanding of the barriers encountered by (potential) users. To this end, Charlotte Noël, Lisa Van Landschoot, Christophe Vanroelen and Sylvie Gadeyne (Interface Demography, Sociology, Vrije Universiteit Brussel) investigate the subjective, self-perceived social barriers that prevent people to visit available and accessible PGSs, or that prevent them from using PGSs in an intensive way.
The authors applied a qualitative research methodology and generated insights through 51 individual face-to-face in-depth interviews with a group of PGS-users diversified in terms of age, gender, migration background and socio-economic situation. Questions were open-ended and the interview guide was semi-structured.
They find that the physical and the social environment are continuously interacting and impacting each other. Although PGSs are physical spaces, they are continuously socially evaluated. The presence of specific physical elements such as fitness equipment or play infrastructure is valued by some but not by others and will attract certain social groups. Physical traces of social activities such as litter, vandalism or tags represent visual clues that are socially evaluated and interpreted negatively, influencing the appearance and valorisation of PGSs. The authors identified three social barriers to the use of available and accessible PGSs: (1) perceived dangers due to bad precedents, the presence of socially frightening elements (groups of people associated with possible danger such as male adolescents, assumed refugees, homeless people and people consuming alcohol and drugs; and material elements such as vandalism, graffiti, tags and litter) or lack of social control, (2) not feeling in place because of the dominance of a specific group of users or because of community perceptions and (3) not fulfilling socialisation needs or the need for privacy and tranquillity.
Policies should thus invest in increasing the attractiveness of PGSs by removing or limiting social barriers. To this end, an interdisciplinary and multilevel approach is indispensable both in the creation, the modification and the management of PGSs.
In addition, one should not only provide sufficient PGSs but also sufficient diverse PGSs able to answer different social needs since combining many often conflicting needs in one single PGS is very challenging, especially in smaller congested PGSs.
In sum, while there are many benefits associated with PGSs, a continuous social evaluation of these physical places identifies social barriers resulting in a decline in their use, a more superficial use or even complete avoidance. If we want to use PGSs as a public health mechanism, we must actively identify these barriers and be proactive in making PGSs welcoming for all.