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Mingling, observing, and lingering: Everyday public spaces and their implications for well-being...

Key Message

A wide range of everyday public open spaces were perceived as having a positive influence on both individual well-being and community life. Some people derived restorative benefits from the opportunities provided by spaces to be alone, but for many others, it was their social value, their shared and collective use which was instrumental both in alleviating stress and for maintaining health and well-being.

Source

Cattell, V., Dines, N., Gesler, W., & Curtis, S. (2008). Mingling, observing, and lingering: Everyday public spaces and their implications for well-being and social relations. Health & Place, 14(3), 544-561.

Purpose

The rejuvenation of public spaces is a key policy concern in the UK. Drawing on a wide literature and on qualitative research located in a multi-ethnic area of East London, this paper explores their relationship to well-being and social relations. It demonstrates that ordinary spaces are a significant resource for both individuals and communities. The beneficial properties of public spaces are not reducible to natural or aesthetic criteria, however. Social interaction in spaces can provide relief from daily routines, sustenance for people’s sense of community, opportunities for sustaining bonding ties or making bridges, and can influence tolerance and raise people’s spirits. They also possess subjective meanings that accumulate over time and can contribute to meeting diverse needs. Different users of public spaces attain a sense of well-being for different reasons: the paper calls for policy approaches in which the social and therapeutic properties of a range of everyday spaces are more widely recognised and nurtured.

This paper examines people’s everyday relationships with mundane public spaces. It draws on qualitative research conducted by the authors to investigate people’s uses and experiences of public open spaces. The work formed part of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s research programme on public spaces; a full account of the study is given elsewhere (Dines and Cattell, 2006).

To explore people’s knowledge, use and understandings of public space, and to draw out the significance of public open spaces for different people, seven discussion groups were conducted across the centre and south of the borough with a variety of residents and community activists (42 people in total). These were digitally recorded and transcribed. The groups comprised:
- Asian elders who used a day center;
- members of a Pakistani cultural forum;
- teenage female residents of a housing estate;
- refugees and asylum seekers from the former Yugoslavia;
- white British older residents who met in a coffee shop;
- a ‘health walkers’ group (who organised walks around the local area); and
- a group campaigning against the redevelopment of a local market.

Evidence

A wide range of everyday public open spaces were perceived as having a positive influence on both individual well-being and community life. Some people derived restorative benefits from the opportunities provided by spaces to be alone, but for many others, it was their social value, their shared and collective use which was instrumental both in alleviating stress and for maintaining health and well-being.
• People will need a variety of spaces within an area to meet a range of everyday needs, spaces to linger as well as spaces of transit; spaces which bring people together and spaces for escape.
• ‘Cleaner Safer Greener’ policies focus on the healthy environmental benefits of green spaces, and the need to combat anti-social behaviour and litter.

Whilst the importance of the visual quality, or liveability, of an area to well-being is undeniable (MORI, 2005) the beneficial properties of public spaces are not solely reducible to a set of design-based, natural or aesthetic criteria.
• Social interaction in public spaces, for example, can provide relief from daily routines, sustenance for people’s sense of community, opportunities for sustaining bonding ties or making bridges, and can have a direct influence on wellbeing by raising people’s spirits.
• Often quite mundane places attain symbolic significance for people through social relations that take place there. But public spaces are more than just simply containers of human activity, they possess subjective meanings that accumulate over time, spaces can contribute to meeting needs for security, identity, and a sense of place.

Whilst acknowledging that public space is rarely without tensions, the research has suggested nevertheless that public open spaces not only provide an important arena where ethnic diversity is negotiated and experienced, but that their potential for developing inter-ethnic understanding is significant. Certain busy public open spaces, like a market, were seen to have therapeutic qualities, and for similar reasons. These were places where people felt comfortable to mingle, observe and linger, aspects of cosmopolitan life which participants recounted as enjoyable. Some people acknowledged the potential of such inclusive sites of daily routines for developing tolerance; we suggest there may be implications for health and well-being also. Living in a less tolerant area has been associated with poorer self-rated health (Stafford et al., 2005), while tolerance is an important pre-condition for widening networks and for a more inclusive social capital (Cattell, 2004). Putnam has argued that social capital is harder to build in the presence of diversity (Hallberg and Lund, 2005).

We have not attempted to delineate an ‘ideal model’ of public space; no one public space is likely to be able to meet the need for community, for social cohesion and integration, or for a sense of well-being derived directly from physical features of the urban environment. What is important is that the wider the variety of public spaces and associated facilities within a vicinity, the greater the likelihood that diverse needs may be met.

Overall, this paper calls for an approach in which the existing and potential social and therapeutic properties of public open space are more widely recognised, nurtured, and built upon.

Additional Information

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Benefit Statements / Outcomes

Leadership Provided By:

  • Leisure Information Network (LIN)
  • Alberta Recreation and Parks Association

On Behalf Of:

  • Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (CPRAA)

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