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'The location and type of green space is incredibly important in determining recreation benefits'

Parks and green spaces of England and Wales valued at £25.6 billion a year

Parks and green spaces provide around £25.6 billion of ‘welfare value’ to the health and wellbeing of adults in England and Wales each year, according to a ground-breaking new tool that calculates the economic value of outdoor recreational spaces.

The Outdoor Recreation Valuation Tool (ORVal), developed by researchers at the University of Exeter Business School, assesses the value provided by each park, wood, riverside walk, country path and beach across England and Wales, while also identifying which residents enjoy the benefits of each green space and when they do so.

In a major study funded by the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), researchers found that small parks deliver ‘pound for pound’ the highest recreation value, and that good access to quality green spaces, the weather and dog ownership are key drivers of increased outdoor recreation.

They also found big differences in participation rates in outdoor recreation across population groups.

The study, a world first in its ambitious scope and the detail of its analysis, took into account factors such as ease of access by car or on foot, the quality and diversity of the environment in each green space and the socioeconomic characteristics or residents. It also revealed:

  • The ‘Top 10’ most valuable recreation sites across England and Wales, with Hyde Park in London, Sutton Park in Birmingham and Blaise Castle in Bristol in the top 3.
  • Small parks deliver the highest recreation value on a ‘pound for pound’ basis (ie value per hectare). Large country parks and beaches are generally the most valuable green spaces.
  • People from ethnic minority backgrounds and in less affluent socioeconomic groups are less likely to engage in outdoor recreation, even when given the same recreation opportunities. (A person of white ethnicity is 1.8 times more likely to take a trip to a recreation site than someone of black ethnicity, and the most affluent socioeconomic group is 1.6 times more likely to take a trip than the least affluent.)
  • Dog owners are 4 times (3.7) more likely to use recreation spaces but having children does not significantly impact recreation habits.
  • Locations of high deprivation tend to be better served by options for publicly accessible recreation than areas of low deprivation, which tend to have more gardens or other privately accessible green space. 
  • Although residents of rural communities have nature on their doorstep, they are relatively poorly served by accessible green space to enjoy outdoor recreation activities compared with residents of urban areas. The main exception is residents of National Parks where green space access is plentiful.
  • Wetter winters, drier summers and higher temperatures as a result of climate change are expected to increase demand for recreation by 4%.

Brett Day, Professor of Environmental Economics at the University of Exeter Business School and Director of the Land, Environment, Environment and Policy Institute (LEEP) said: “The huge surge in use of green space during the Covid-19 pandemic shows us just how much importance people put on being able to spend time in nature. As we lurch from that calamity into a cost of living crisis that is forcing households to cut spending on recreation activities, the need for good quality, open access green space is more pressing than ever.

“The great contribution of this study is that it puts a figure to the value of our green spaces: £25.6 billion a year. The size of that benefit stands in stark contrast to the deep cuts in green space budgets across UK councils, cuts that threaten to condemn our green spaces to neglect and disrepair. The ORVal tool makes explicit the very real, but all-too-often-ignored, losses that people endure as a consequence.

“What this study illustrates very clearly is that the location and type of green space is incredibly important in determining recreation benefits – a park or recreation site just 10 minutes travel in the wrong place can have an almost exponential effect on how many people use it.

“Recreational access is not the same for all people, not just because of where they live but because of things like access to a car. ORVal can show decision-makers how to locate new facilities in a way that will provide the most benefit to more disadvantaged groups and give them better access to the environment.”

Lord Benyon, Minister for Rural Affairs said: “Spending time outside in nature is good for us. This study is clear that even the smallest green spaces are good for the economy and provide important social benefits.

“We are investing in new parks through our £9m Levelling Up Parks Fund to help everyone access green space. We are also helping connect people to the outdoors through our network of national trails, including the creation of an England Coastal Path, and we have introduced green social prescribing pilots to improve health and wellbeing.”

The top 10 most valuable green spaces was topped by Hyde Park with an estimated welfare value of £24.1 million – but individuals in London in fact make the lowest number of visits to green space across all regions.

Sutton Park in Birmingham also had a high estimated welfare value of £15.6 million, followed by Blaise Castle Estate in Bristol with an expected value of nearly £13 million.

Hampstead Heath, Windsor Great Park, Croxteth Hall in Liverpool, Ashton Court in Bristol, Southampton Common in Southampton, Bute Park in Cardiff, and Greenwich Park in London completed the rest of the top 10.

While large parks are highly valued, the research revealed that small parks, which are often more accessible, have the highest economic value ‘pound for pound’ on a per hectare basis.

Key drivers of recreation include the proximity of the site, ease of travel, whether the park is a mix of grass and woodland and the availability of car parks and children’s play areas.

The study also suggested that taking part in outdoor day trips provides more ‘welfare value’ than sedentary activities such as watching TV or going shopping.

LEEP’s Outdoor Recreation Valuation Tool (ORVal), also funded by Defra, was used to determine which factors influence recreation habits and to predict how these patterns will change over time.

The tool highlighted how engaging with nature is beneficial for wellbeing and supporting mental health resilience.

Date: 3 May 2022