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There are rights of access to the natural environment and greenspaces throughout Britain that enable people to use and enjoy them. In urban areas, many greenspaces have open access or rights of public access. Some areas where access is currently limited, such as some brownfield sites, may be reclaimed and become greenspace that can be accessed and enjoyed by local communities.

The table clarifies the different ways in which access to woodland and greenspace can be understood. In promoting a wider concept of the use of greenspace for well-being, this approach goes beyond physical access to sites.

Levels of access to woodland
Level Description
Level 0: Virtual access The subject is distant from an actual greenspace or woodland, and can access only a virtual or mental image (a TV programme, a picture or a memory)
Level 1: A view Access to a view requires proximity to greenspace or woodland, but does not require a person to be ‘in’ the landscape (might include driving or walking past a greenspace, or the view from a window)
Level 2: Using and being in greenspace Access afforded by using, being in, or passing through a greenspace or woodland environment (walking, picnicking, cycling, running, playing sport, etc.)
Level 3: Active, hands-on engagement Being physically engaged in working with or within a greenspace or woodland (volunteer work, practical action)
Level 4: Ownership and/or management Being in a position of responsibility, able to determine or contribute to decision-making about the future management of the greenspace or woodland

Source: adapted from Weldon et al. (2007).

Having a right of access to urban greenspace does not necessarily mean that people will use and enjoy these places. Issues of accessibility – whether people feel they have both the ability and the means to visit and enjoy these spaces – are a significant topic for consideration.

In terms of access, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 provides for public access on foot to scheduled land (generally unenclosed land that may include woodland) in England and Wales. In Scotland, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 establishes a statutory public right of responsible access to land, including woods and forests, and to paths that cross access land. All the public forest estate managed by the Forestry Commission is open to the public.

A right of way is a route along which the public have a right of passage. In England and Wales, highway authorities have a duty to maintain legally recognised maps of rights of way. In Scotland, rights of way are recorded at national level by the National Catalogue of Rights of Way. Access to urban parks and woods is generally open to all.

Practical considerations

Although people may have access to urban greenspace in theory, a range of barriers may prevent them from feeling able to visit these spaces, including the following.

  • Physical (getting to the site) – those without cars may have difficulty accessing greenspace, particularly if no suitable public transport is available. There may be busy or dangerous roads acting as a barrier to greenspace if people are trying to reach these areas on foot or by bicycle.
  • Physical (while at the site) – footpaths may be poorly maintained and signposted, making it difficult for people to get around a site. Sites may also have stiles or barriers that affect people such as the physically disabled and people with pushchairs. Overgrown vegetation, rubbish dumping (fly tipping) or dog mess can affect how people move around a site.
  • Psychological – the perception of risk is important in accessing greenspace. Research has shown that certain groups (especially women, young people and minority ethnic groups) have a range of concerns, often relating to safety. A significant aspect of many people’s perceptions of woodland is fear for their own safety, usually associated with potentially encountering antisocial or criminal behaviour. There are concerns that children and young people are losing out on access to urban greenspace due to parental concerns about their safety. People may also feel they are not welcome at a site, particularly if it looks neglected or badly managed.
  • Cultural – there are issues about common and accepted ways (norms) of viewing and using greenspace. For example, teenagers are increasingly viewed with suspicion in outdoor public spaces, particularly if they are rowdy or hang out in large numbers. Those from minority ethnic groups, who are generally under-represented in greenspace use, may feel unable to use these spaces for a variety of reasons, including concerns about racial abuse. Disabled people may not feel welcome in some greenspaces if there is no provision for them (such as suitable gradients on paths or Braille interpretation).
  • Financial – although access is generally free, there may be financial constraints. Those in disadvantaged and deprived areas may not tend to travel far from where they live, due to a lack of finances or of time, and so may be unable to access greenspace. There may be car park charges at some sites, and entrance fees to gardens or heritage sites.
  • Information – people may feel they lack information about where they can go, or what facilities and activities to expect when they get there. This can be particularly significant for disabled people.

The Urban Parks Forum in 2001 reported that urban parks in the UK were in serious decline, and that people in disadvantaged areas were more likely to be losing out. The English House Condition Survey (ODPM, 2003) shows that public space in deprived areas, particularly those dominated by social housing, is worse than in affluent areas.

Further considerations


In recent years the value of urban greenspace has risen up the political agenda. The RCEP (2007) report on The Urban Environment highlights the importance of urban greenspace and green infrastructure. The Environment and Social Justice Review (Lucas et al., 2004) argues that the quality of urban greenspaces acts as a powerful indicator of whether an area is a good place to live. The Park Life Report (2007) found that 92% of respondents stated that they visit parks and greenspaces in the UK, and 55% visit a large park once a month; 97% believe that parks and greenspaces help to create a nice place to live. This and other research highlights the importance of access to greenspaces for people’s overall well-being. Research has identified the following ways in which accessibility issues can be addressed:

  • Good woodland and greenspace design and interpretation can help make people feel welcome and reduce the perception of threats in an unfamiliar environment
  • A wider range and diversity of individuals and groups should be included and incorporated in existing monitoring of the profile of greenspace users and visitors
  • Good outreach can act as a driving force that strengthens relationships and may facilitate further involvement of under-represented or excluded social groups
  • A good standard of overall management should be maintained to promote a feeling of care and control
  • Work in cooperation with local initiatives in promoting security
  • Work towards reducing real and perceived dangers through design, such as providing good sightlines so that people do not feel too enclosed.


Public authorities need to comply with legislation in the field of equality and diversity. The new legislation means that a passive ‘greenspace for all’ approach is no longer sufficient. Instead, responsible agencies must actively promote diversity and inclusion. The responsibilities and expertise required to respond to the new legislation need to be tackled strategically, at all levels of an organisation. A generic equality scheme covering race, disability and gender is a good way of implementing the requirements. If there are shown to be differential impacts on relevant social groups, the organisation should act to promote greater equality.


The following standards have been devised on access to greenspace and woodland. They are not statutory at present, but may act as a guide and discussion point regarding physical access.

The Woodland Access Standard is an aspirational benchmark created by the Woodland Trust in 2004 and supported by the Forestry Commission, focusing on towns and cities. The aspirations of the Standard are that:

  • No person should live more than 500 m from at least one area of accessible woodland of no more than 2 ha in size
  • There should also be at least one area of accessible woodland of no less than 20 ha within 4 km of people’s homes.

The Accessible Natural Greenspace Standard was devised by Natural England and the Countryside Council for Wales, and states that:

  • No person should live more than 300 m from their nearest area of natural greenspace of at least 2 ha in size
  • There should be at least one accessible 20 ha site within 2 km of home
  • There should be one accessible 100 ha site within 5 km of home
  • There should be one accessible 500 ha site within 10 km of home.

Case studies

Accessibility of woodlands and natural spaces

Forest Research’s Social and Economic Research Group ran a seminar in 2004 on ‘Accessibility of woodlands and natural spaces’, with a focus on addressing crime and safety issues. Attendees included police officers, local authority personnel, and representatives from NGOs, academia and government organisations. A range of speakers discussed issues such as how to prevent crime through environmental design; the role of the media in creating fear of risk; managing access safely; and creating a strategy for increasing public access to woodlands. A series of workshops at the seminar focused on different aspects of access:

  • Access and risk perception
  • Access and exclusionary behaviour
  • Access and liability
  • Crime reduction and the rehabilitation of offenders
  • Location and design of accessible woodlands.

From discussions at the workshops, there was consensus on key issues for tackling some of the crime and safety problems outlined at the event.

  • Planning is needed that is responsive and recognises the importance of greenspace as an integral part of infrastructure, particularly in an urban context.
  • Research is needed to understand people’s behaviour in more detail, and where improvements can be made or where design might help to reduce fear. Research is also needed to inform policy-making and provide an evidence base for future action.
  • Communication is a key issue in providing positive stories and thus trying to reduce fear.
  • Partnerships are needed that bring together the key skills of a range of organisations and individuals/communities.

New Pathways for health and well-being

This research project was undertaken by independent consultants in collaboration with Forest Research in 2007. The overall aims of the research were to:

  • Better understand the barriers that might affect people accessing woodlands in Scotland for health and well-being
  • Identify, prioritise and promote potential opportunities to overcome those barriers.

A qualitative action research approach was undertaken in five case studies in Scotland, three of which were in urban areas. The focus of the research was working with groups who were under-represented in woodland use, to discuss barriers to accessing woods for well-being.

The key barriers identified were:

  • Lack of knowledge
  • Negative perceptions, fears and safety concerns
  • Lack of motivation
  • Lack of time
  • Physical access issues
  • Lack of physical fitness
  • Feeling unwelcome
  • Lack of reasonable facilities
  • Conflicts of site use.

Overall, the research discovered that barriers to access are less about the single issues identified above, and more to do with wider factors. For example, the findings indicate that the complex interplay of factors, local contingencies and life stage are equally if not more important in determining who will use a particular woodland or greenspace and for what purpose. The research recommended that a proactive approach is needed in order to reach out to under-represented groups and to widen access to woodlands and greenspaces. This approach would need to include:

  • Engaging with communities to understand their local context and build trust to establish realistic projects and expectations
  • Building local capacity to address local problems and meeting needs within the community
  • Linking services by working in partnership with other service providers
  • Contributing to a new woodland/greenspace culture by thinking more widely than public access normally enjoyed by only certain groups of people undertaking traditional recreational activities – by promoting access at different levels and incorporating a wider range of cultural traditions, including those enjoyed by minority groups
  • Evaluating project outcomes that have arisen as a result of improved access – evaluation, feedback and monitoring should be an integral part of the management process
  • Leaving a sustainable legacy – projects should be planned with an appropriate exit strategy, such as setting up a community group, so that momentum and contacts built up are not lost if a project comes to an end.

Forest Research projects



In the past few years, Forest Research has developed expertise in socio-economic research. The Social and Economic Research Group now includes economists, an anthropologist, a political scientist, a human ecologist, a geographer and environmental sociologists. One of the key research themes of the group is community diversity and development, and our research will provide greater understanding of who is currently excluded due to social, economic, psychological, cultural and/or physical factors.

Advisory work

The Social and Economic Research Group provides advice to the Forestry Commission and the forestry or greenspace sector on social and economic issues related to woodlands and greenspaces.


The Social and Economic Research Group can provide:

  • Advice on the design and conduct of social research
  • Research project design and management
  • Advice on social issues in forestry
  • Evaluation of social programmes
  • Advice on the design and conduct of research exploring governance and public involvement.

Monitoring and evaluation

Monitoring and evaluation of projects and initiatives is crucially important in trying to understand the impact of interventions on a range of people. The Social and Economic Research Group is involved in developing usable monitoring and evaluation frameworks for the Forestry Commission, and as researchers in a number of European projects. This work will identify users and non-users of greenspace, and explore any barriers to use and enjoyment of these spaces.

Further information

Burgess, J. (1995). Growing in Confidence: understanding people’s perceptions of urban fringe woodlands. Countryside Commission, Cheltenham.

GreenSpace (2007). The Park Life Report: the first ever public satisfaction survey of Britain’s parks and greenspaces. GreenSpace, London.

Lucas, K., Walker, G., Eames, M., Fay, H. and Poustie, M. (2004). Environment and Social Justice: Rapid Research and Evidence Review. Sustainable Development Research Network Report No. 1. Policy Studies Institute, London.

O’Brien, E. (2005). Tackling youth disaffection through woodland vocational training. Quarterly Journal of Forestry 99, 125-130.

O’Brien, E. (2005). Bringing together ideas of social enterprise, education and community woodland: the Hill Holt Wood approach. Scottish Forestry 59, 7-14.

O’Brien, E. and Tabbush, P. (2005). Accessibility of Woodlands and Natural Spaces: addressing crime and safety issues. Forest Research, Farnham.

O’Brien, E. and Weldon, S. (2007). A place where the needs of every child matters: factors affecting the use of greenspace and woodlands for children and young people. Countryside Recreation Journal 15, 6-9.

O’Brien, E., Foot, K. and Doick, K. (2007). Evaluating the benefits of community greenspace creation on brownfield land. Quarterly Journal of Forestry 101, 145-151.

ODPM (2003). English House Condition Survey 2003. Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, London.

RCEP (2007). The Urban Environment.  Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, London.

Travlou, P. and Roe, J. (2007). ‘Collation and Review of Guidance, Tools and Case Studies of Good Practice.’ Unpublished report for Forest Research by OPENspace Research Centre, Edinburgh.

Urban Parks Forum (2001). Public Park Assessment: a survey of local authority owned parks, focusing on parks of historic interest. Urban Parks Forum, London.

Ward Thompson, C., Aspinall, P., Bell, S., Findlay, C., Wherrett, J. and Travlou, P. (2004). Open Space and Social Inclusion: Local Woodland Use in Central Scotland. Forestry Commission, Edinburgh.

Weldon, S., Bailey, C. and O’Brien, L. (2007). New Pathways for Health and Well-being in Scotland: research to understand and overcome barriers to accessing woodlands. Report to Forestry Commission Scotland.

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