Trees and remnant vegetation within urban parks – do they attract visitors?

Most towns and cities will have at least one park, which can be used by visitors as a place to relax (via the disassociation with day-to-day life, for example). These parks may – or may not – be heavily planted with trees, and retain vegetation remnants from past land use. It is understood that the presence of such parks is beneficial for visitors, and research has shown that urban parks are beneficial in terms of improving health and well-being for visitors (or those that overlook a park). Not only this, but parks that are well-vegetated (and retain remnant vegetation) are usually far better at providing habitat for species of bird, bat, and otherwise, when compared to vegetated (or non-vegetated) streets surrounding the park. This increased biodiversity presence actually allows park visitors to experience nature to a greater degree than in other urban landscapes, which may be particularly important for those individuals who desire a closer affinity with nature. Therefore, this study sought to determine whether the total tree and remnant vegetation cover influenced the amount of park visitors, and whether social factors influence upon a person’s decision to visit a park with greater vegetation cover, in Brisbane, Australia.

The data obtained through this study was collected via an online survey, of which 1,479 individuals within the city responded. Participants were selected on the basis that they had to have been between the ages of 18-70, with an equal distribution of individuals either side of 40. In addition, male and female participants had to be largely similar, and the annual income of each individual surveyed had to reflect Brisbane’s total population. Furthermore, an equal number of individuals had to complete the survey from four different areas of the city, which were reflective of the city’s range in tree canopy cover (so an equal numberĀ  from poorly-treed areas, and from areas where canopy cover was high).

botanicbrisbane
A well-vegetated park in Kangaroo Point, Brisbane. Source: Bugbog.

From those surveyed, many questions were asked. In addition to the personal data received from each respondent, they were all asked whether they visit parks (and if so, which ones). Those who answered that they did not visit parks were excluded from the resultant analyses. All respondents were also asked multiple questions to determine how they interacted with nature, in order to ascertain whether those with a better ‘relationship’ with nature opted to visit parks with greater tree.

In terms of tree and remnant vegetation cover, overhead maps were used to analyse individual parks. Only those relics over 0.5ha in size were recorded, as they are usually more likely to be home to a greater level of biodiversity. Lastly, Brisbane’s parks were separated into three categoies: local, district, and metropolitan. Local parks tend to have the smallest amount of associated infrastructure to accomodate for visitors, whilst metropolitan parks have a high level of associated infastructure. Not only this, but local parks have a much lower expected ‘catchment zone’ than metropolitan parks, with the latter perhaps attracting visitors from many suburbs and the former only a few streets. More obviously, local parks (1.3ha) are far smaller than district (5.9ha) and metropolitan (20.8ha) parks.

Looking at the results obtained through the survey, it is evident that more people visited parks with at least a moderate level of tree cover (see figure below). However, there was found to be no significant difference across tree cover extents. With regards to remnant vegetation cover, it can be seen that most visits were to parks with under 10% remnant cover, though this may be due to the fact that many parks lack extensive remnant cover.

parkvisittree
Results of what parks the respondents of the survey visited. The black line shows the proportion of respondents who visited each park category.

Interestingly, the authors note that 79% of respondents visit parks further afield than the closest one to their address. Those most likley to travel further distances were the individuals who ranked higher in their relationship with nature, as they sought to visit the parks with greater tree and remnant vegetation cover (see below figure). Conversely, individuals living in affluent areas of the city were less likely to visit parks with a higher tree cover. With regards to gender, females were slightly more likely to travel further distances to a park with more tree cover, though there was no significant difference between the genders. On the flip side, males were more likely to travel greater distances to visit parks with higher remnant vegetation cover. Age and income didn’t generally reflect what type of park a respondent would use.

parkvisitremnant
Comparing how ‘related’ a respondent was with nature against the type of park they opted to frequent.

The larger parks were also home to more trees, and thus greater canopy cover. This may, in part, explain why people who were more connected with nature travelled greater distances to parks with greater tree cover, as local parks were simply less desirable for them.

However, by-and-large, visitors chose to frequent parks with only moderate tree cover. The authors remark at this as a bit of a paradox, because parks with a greater tree and remnant vegetation cover are usually more beneficial for human well-being and health, though they are not necessarily the preferred choice. This may be, the authors allege, because ‘western’ cultures tend to prefer open savannah (pastures), in place of heavily-vegetated ones, and because an individual’s perception of safety decreases as canopy cover increases (ironically, research suggests somewhat of the opposite). Similarly, biodiversity will benefit from a greater tree and vegetation cover. Despite this, if parks are to be managed and designed in a way that reflects the desire of Brisbane’s residents, there may be a need to reduce vegetation cover at the cost of safeguarding biodiversity.

The fact that only those who seek a higher affinity with nature will travel longer distances to visit parks is also telling. It suggests that only a particular portion of Brisbane’s population actually gains the full benefits associated with parks with greater tree and remnant vegetation cover. What impact may this be having on those who do not visit such parks?

parkbris
One of Brisbane’s botanic gardens. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps there is a need to educate people about the benefits of such ‘natural’ parks. However, if these parks then have a higher number of visitors, will the added disturbance impact upon the biodiversity within? Because such ‘natural’ parks are better for biodiversity, encouraging more visitors may have a negative effect, and not only on biodiversity but maybe also those who go to such parks to feel ‘at one’ with nature. Maybe we can view parks with reduced tree cover as sufficient; if not to satiate the need of many people to visit parks, then to allow the more ‘natural’ parks to continue to provide for those who like them and the biodiversity within.

Source: Shanahan, D., Lin, B., Gaston, K., Bush, R, & Fuller, R. (2015) What is the role of trees and remnant vegetation in attracting people to urban parks?. Landscape Ecology. 30 (1). p153-165.

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Trees and remnant vegetation within urban parks – do they attract visitors?

4 thoughts on “Trees and remnant vegetation within urban parks – do they attract visitors?

  1. Pat Baldwin says:

    Yes, I think that several levels of parks are needed for many urban users. In my experience with urban nature walks, even these environments can be stressful if users have concerns about bugs, animals or darker places. Sometimes a visit to an urban park seems like an exercise in a remedial nature experience.

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    1. Good point on the bugs, etc. It’d always be preferable to have a mix of different types, at least from a human perspective. From an ecological one, under-used parks with a higher tree and vegetation cover is better. Without question all parks, at least the larger ones, are relaxing. It’s a totally different world. A sort of microcosm, if you will.

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