Indicating the importance of children’s access to greenspace
In this blog Bruce Whyte, Public Health Programme Manager at Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH), provides an in-depth look at how the GCPH’s indicator on children’s access to greenspace works and why it is so important.
It might seem obvious to state, but there are clear health, developmental and recreational benefits in ensuring children have access to good quality natural outdoor environments. So, in 2016, when the GCPH started to plan a set of children’s profiles for Glasgow, we decided to include a new indicator to highlight the importance of children’s access to good quality parks, natural space and play areas. To create the indicator, we engaged the services of one of UBDC’s GIS analysts and sought the advice and support of planners in Glasgow City Council (GCC)’s Development Plan team.
We believe that creating an indicator of children’s access to greenspace is important for a number of reasons: we take play, particularly outdoor play, for granted; we tend to undervalue parks as places that support children’s physical and social development; and, we know that children who are active in natural outdoor spaces are more likely to utilise them as adults. In Glasgow, in particular, we often highlight more negative indicators – important though this can be – such as exposure to degraded post-industrial environment, for example the percentage of people living close to vacant and derelict land. The indicator of children’s access to greenspace is positive – showing the proportion of children in a neighbourhood who live near publicly accessible greenspace and an assessment of its quality.
How the indicator was created
Applying GIS (Geographic Information System) technology to spatial data from UBDC and GCC, we identified usable greenspace based on its size and land use classification. We then measured the shortest route from each building in Glasgow to the nearest accessible greenspace and used population data of under 16s living in each output area to estimate the number of children (in 2014) living within 400 metres of accessible greenspace in each Glasgow neighbourhood.
On completion, a set of maps and tables were produced indicating the proportion of children within each of Glasgow’s 56 neighbourhoods living within 400 metres of publicly accessible greenspace – access to private gardens was not included. This indicator was included in the children’s and young people’s neighbourhood profiles for Glasgow published on Understanding Glasgow. The figure below highlights the level of children’s access to publicly accessible greenspace across Glasgow Neighbourhoods.
However, we had always wanted to take account of the quality of the greenspace, which varies across the city. So, through applying a quality assessment grade to each park and play area in Glasgow based on a Council audit of open space (PDF 0.4MB) we were able to create a revised and more nuanced indicator. The way the data have been assembled allows different measures of children’s access to greenspace to be constructed, based on the type of greenspace and its quality assessment value, which varies from A, denoting the top graded 25% of park or play areas, to D denoting the lowest graded 25% of parks or play areas – see example below.
The importance of the indicator
There is consistent evidence that free play in an outdoor environment contributes to children’s physical and mental health. “In adventurous outdoor play children can challenge themselves, test out their limits and learn to self-regulate their emotions.” (the Lancet). A Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play, also says that “Access to active play in nature and outdoors – with its risks – is essential for healthy child development” and went on to recommend increasing children’s opportunities for self-directed play outdoors. However, we know that the area where children can roam unsupervised around their homes has reduced dramatically and changes in education policy have tended to restrict the amount of learning through play.
Nevertheless, things seem to be changing in Scotland. There is now increasing recognition of the benefits of outdoor learning, exercise and play for children’s wellbeing, and physical and cognitive development.
The Scottish Government recognises the role of outdoor learning in delivering the Curriculum for Excellence (PDF 1.1MB), emphasises the importance of outdoor play in their Play Strategy (PDF 1.1MB) and sees good access to outdoor learning as a key component of the Expansion of Early Learning and Childcare in Scotland. In her GCPH seminar series lecture, Sue Palmer noted that opportunities for children to engage in active, creative, outdoor play have declined and argued that to reinstate play at the heart of early childhood we should consider introducing a Nordic-style kindergarten stage for 3-7 year-olds, with particular emphasis on outdoor play.
Support for this work came from the Glasgow City Council’s development plan team and the work they have been doing to bring forward an Open Space Strategy for the city (due for publication later this year). This sets out how open space can contribute to health and wellbeing through recreation, exercise and sport and recognises the opportunities to create cycling and walking routes that support green corridors. The Central Scotland Green Network similarly emphasises the importance of green space for play and recreation, community growing and for active travel. City parks provide all of these opportunities. The Free Wheel North track in Glasgow Green is a great example, providing a fun and safe environment for many different groups to try out bikes and trikes.
Finally, it is worth touching on the challenges of physical inactivity and obesity, which affect our whole population, and often begin in childhood. Unplug and Play – the Active Healthy Kids Scotland Report Card (PDF 2.2MB) highlights that (on average) Scottish kids spend far too long sitting in front of screens, have very low levels of physical activity, a poor diet and are increasingly at risk of being obese or overweight.
In recognition of this, the GCPH children’s profiles contain indicators of active travel and childhood obesity alongside access to greenspace. The profiles are accompanied by Evidence for Action briefings to support action on these issues.
The access to greenspace indicator has helped inform thinking about new outdoor nursery provision in Glasgow. In future, a Scotland-wide indicator of children’s access to greenspace indicator could be of widespread utility, helping to influence debate and decisions around the sorts of healthy outdoor environments all our children should have access to.
We would like to thank Rod Walpole, a Spatial Data Scientist, at the University of Glasgow’s Urban Big Data Centre, who created the indicators. We would also like to thank Alan Duff, Amanda Waugh and Gail Stewart, planners from Glasgow City Council (working on the City Development Plan & Open Space Strategy), who provided advice and data on parks, play areas and other types of greenspace in the city.
Further information on how this indicator was created and to discuss potential uses for the indicator, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Bruce Whyte is Public Health Programme Manager at Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH). He co-leads the Centre’s ‘Observatory Function’ and is responsible for developing and managing a comprehensive public health information programme. His main areas of work include: managing and developing the Understanding Glasgow website and leading a programme of research on active and sustainable travel.