Attracting minority groups into parks

More needs to be done to address the green space concerns of ethnic minority groups, writes Magda Ibrahim.

To widen the participation in parks is one of the key aims of green space organisations, which advocate their use as a tool for health, social cohesion and environmental education.

But despite parks officers' best efforts to improve inclusivity, studies show that barriers still exist for many groups in accessing green spaces.

The latest GreenSpace conference, held in Reading on 23 September, focused on improving the use of parks by black and minority ethnic (BME) communities.

"Despite their easily accessible nature, representation and participation of black and minority ethnic groups in parks is often limited and does not always reflect the ethnic profile of the local population," explained GreenSpace chief executive Paul Bramhill.

The conference aimed to examine what prevents BME groups from using parks and what methods could be used to ensure they could visit their local green spaces with confidence.

The Black Environment Network's heritage access officer for England James Friel said opportunities to engage with groups are being missed because of a fear of making mistakes.

"There is often a confidence issue and a fear of getting something wrong," Friel revealed. "Don't be afraid to ask questions; local authorities are often happier spending £20,000 on something people won't want or use than spending 20 minutes talking to groups and asking them what they really want.Don't make assumptions and come in with set ideas before talking to people."

Defra's Rural White Paper 2000 made a commitment to improving diversity in the countryside, and Natural England has been working on the government department's Outdoors For All? diversity action plan.

Launched in March this year by the under-secretary for landscape and diversity, Jonathan Shaw, the 10-year action plan provides a framework for delivering equality in both rural and urban communities.

It has set targets for encouraging people with disabilities, people from BME communities, young people and people from inner cities to participate more in outdoor recreation.

Natural England's State of the Countryside research shows that while more than nine per cent of people living in England are from a black or ethnic minority community, only one to two per cent of visits to the countryside are made by those groups.

Former Leeds City Council parks manager and GreenSpace trustee Denise Preston said: "We've all got to create equal opportunities action plans to attract BME communities but it is very difficult. We can't expect people to want to come and work in parks unless they understand parks and experience them."

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, an important aspect of tackling under-representation involves engaging young people. The theory is that by getting youngsters from BME communities involved in their local green spaces, the message will filter through to parents, grandparents and extended family that parks can be attractive for them too.

Birmingham City Council has a BME population of around 30 per cent, but in almost a quarter of its electoral wards that figure rises to more than 60 per cent. The council has partnered with charity CSV Environment in a three-year project aimed at improving the use of parks by those groups.

CSV Environment Country Parks For All project officer Zohra Mahmoud has worked with groups ranging from young Muslim girls to older Asian women and says there is an assumption that parks are for the white middle classes.

"A lot of the issues are not solely BME ones, but general inner-city problems," Mahmoud explained. "But there are also problems of awareness and the fact that some communities don't realise there are female rangers who can organise activities in parks.

"I can't emphasise this enough: work with established organisations because that is 90 per cent of your work done for you. It is useless putting communication materials in the park itself because the groups aren't accessing the parks and reading that information - it has to be in the places they will be. That could be schools, temples, mosques, churches and other community places."

Mahmoud added that transport costs can be a huge barrier, along with a lack of adequate signposting, and cultural issues such as a fear of off-leash dogs. In order to ensure her work is sustainable, Mahmoud will begin a new three-year project in November, aimed at training community leaders so they can continue to engage BME groups.

It is no surprise that some of the more innovative work is happening in the UK's biggest BME centres, where the issue is often compounded by the urban setting and associated problems.

Sheffield Hallam University's associate lecturer in sustainable development Maxwell Ayamba works part-time as an officer at the Sheffield Black Ethnic Minority Environmental Network and has been carrying out research on young people's attitudes to green spaces. "There is a vicious spiral of BME exclusion that can lead to things like vandalism," he warned.

In Ayamba's research on 40 children aged eight to 14, he found that although they liked nature, they did not like going to parks. "They told me they don't like parks because there are loose dogs, graffiti, broken glass, busy roads to cross to get there and no toilets or places to sit.

"They also said they don't see people like themselves in parks and they believe more BME people should be working in parks and green spaces. If young people are thinking this then this is what we have to address."

Ultimately, the time and money put into engagement work seems to be proving successful, but that time and money is essential. "The problem is resources for all of us," added Preston.

"We need to get education and health people involved in a much bigger way because they have more money than parks departments.

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