Are parks whiter by design?

A London-based researcher explores why people from BAME backgrounds are less likely to use green spaces

June 2021

Words by Katie Puckett

Planting in the north section of London’s Queen Elizabeth Park exemplifies the “ecological aesthetic” that has become the dominant style in the UK — but which may not make everybody feel at home. Photo: RichardBakerOlympics / Alamy Stock Photo

Well-intentioned attempts to create equal spaces may founder if designers assume that their own cultural tastes and preferences are universally held. This has been highlighted by the work of Dr Bridget Snaith, a senior lecturer in landscape architecture at the University of East London in the UK, who studies how different ethnic groups use London’s parks. Her PhD thesis explores a blind spot in thinking about outdoor spaces: although there is ample evidence of culturally linked preferences, usage patterns are typically considered in isolation from the way parks are designed. 

Research by design agency CABE had found that people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds were less likely to use green spaces, and that ethnicity was a stronger factor in park use than income. The discrepancy could not be entirely explained by the proximity of green space to where people lived, as even parks in very diverse areas had a notable under-representation of people of colour. Neither did racism appear to be the only influence, as there were variations between different groups that are arguably subject to the same level of prejudice. But the picture was very different depending on the park itself, so Snaith wondered if there was a less obvious, cultural, factor at play: “Park space, like all urban space, is a cultural output, and if almost everyone who is shaping park space is white, are park spaces whiter by design?” 

"We found a lot of evidence that place-makers’ views do influence under-representation of minority groups. This is something we need to be aware of if we want to create spaces with equality at their heart"

Dr Bridget Snaith

Snaith drew on the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who coined the concept of “cultural capital” and argued that hierarchies of power were maintained through the idea that some tastes are “legitimate”, moral or rational, while others are trivialized or denigrated. Since the 1990s, the dominant trend in UK park-making has been the “ecological aesthetic” and the naturalistic, unkempt style of planting popularized by High Line designer Piet Oudolf. While the — largely white — UK landscape architecture profession assumes this to be a universal or neutral value, which others should be educated to like, Snaith argues that it is a subjective cultural preference that draws on the English pastoral tradition and a Romantic sensibility that prizes the wild and “authentic”. Those who don’t share the same tastes may feel unwelcome, that spaces are not for them, or disinclined to use them. 

As well as analyzing statistics for several UK parks, she focused in detail on Queen Elizabeth Park, created on the site of the 2012 Olympics and designed to be used by the local community, of which 60% are of BAME origin. It is split into two areas: a south park, including extensive play areas, fountains, seating and hard landscaping; and a north park, landscaped to be much greener and much wilder, and a haven for biodiversity. Critics preferred the latter: architecture writer Rowan Moore lauded the north park as “serene” and “noble”, while deriding the “frenzied” south park as “the visual equivalent of several mobile ringtones going off at once”.

But Snaith found that the north park was largely alienating for the local community, and that just 23% of users were of BAME origin, compared to 52% for the south park. Those of non-white backgrounds were much more likely to connote its aesthetic of natural “wildness” with dirt, neglect or lack of interest — one focus group participant described it as “just depressing … like a waste site”. For many, the more structured gardens of the south park implied urbanity, safety and sociability, and they wanted a range of activities and features.

“We found a lot of evidence that placemakers’ views do influence under-representation of minority groups,” Snaith said in a 2020 presentation entitled “Weeds, Wildflowers and White Privilege”. “This is something we need to be aware of if we want to create spaces with equality at their heart … Equality is not about treating all people the same way. It’s about recognizing and respecting diversity enough to adapt practice.” 

This article appears in The Possible issue 07, as part of a longer feature on designing more equal cities

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