The multiple and immensely negative impacts of the COVID-19 crisis are felt almost everywhere and at all times. When the IGNITION project started in 2019, nobody could have imagined the pandemic starting in early 2020. Nevertheless, the IGNITION project’s design has unintentionally enabled the team to gather valuable insight into peoples’ changing perception of greenspace in Greater Manchester and how the project could actually support peoples’ need for greenspace. At least here, COVID-19 has been useful.

Post-COVID-19: Greater Manchester citizens value greenspaces high

The IGNITION project started from the idea that green and blue space, in the form of parks, meadows, ponds, swales and other nature-based solutions such as trees, green facades and roofs and sustainable urban drainage systems, offer multiple benefits and need to be enhanced in Greater Manchester. However, only some of their benefits are known and valued by people, local decision-makers, and public and private investors. This could be why comparatively few nature-based solutions have been applied across the municipalities and why technical infrastructure with impervious, covered areas and concrete, steel and glass constructions have been preferred. IGNITION has built up an evidence base on the specific benefits of nature-based solutions. In a fun quiz during a webinar presenting the evidence base, even experts more familiar with the topic could only guess on the extent of the benefits of nature-based solutions. If this is the case, then how would non-experts like citizens value greenspace and nature-based solutions?

The project’s citizen survey was designed to support citizens’ engagement by enhancing their awareness and knowledge on the functionality and benefits of nature-based solutions. This survey would be used as a basis to engaging citizens in co-design nature-based solutions for their area. Between November 2019 and January 2020, the project ran the survey to learn more about citizens’ understanding of nature-based solutions, their wants and preferences. A total of 2,065 participants provided their answers. Despite not yet being aware of all the potential benefits of nature-based solutions, survey participants valued them highly. For example, 98% of the survey respondents would like to see more greenspaces in Manchester city centre, which 78% perceived as not at all green.

How the pandemic has further boosted citizens’ appreciation and support

97% of park users felt that being able to access parks and greenspaces during COVID-19 restrictions was very important or important and most visit them much more or more than before. These are findings of  another survey, the IGNITION Greater Manchester park survey. It ran from July to October 2020, in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis. This time, it gathered data from around 2,000 local respondents on how they value public parks and greenspaces. In between the time of these two surveys, the COVID-19 has changed people’s lives substantially. Stuck to their immediate areas, people realised how many things could no longer stay as they were – meeting with friends, going to restaurants and bars, museums and nice places. One of the few pleasures remaining has been visiting near-by parks. Has that changed their attitude towards greenspaces?

Also further results of the survey have been striking:

  • Although valuing parks and greenspaces was already high before COVID-19, 67% of respondents said that they value greenspace even more or much more now.
  • When asked how often they were visiting parks and greenspaces compared to pre-COVID-19, 62% replied much more or more.
  • 84% visited public parks and greenspaces at least once per week, including 21% of people visiting every day and 45% coming multiple times per week.

This increased awareness of the importance of greenspace is a valuable asset for IGNITION and other initiatives that aim to enhance parks and greenspace. 92% of the respondents stated that they will continue visiting public parks and greenspaces at this frequency even after the COVID-19 restrictions have lifted!

A window of opportunity

COVID-19 has definitely opened people’s eyes to the value of greenspace and public parks in their cities. Increased use of outdoor areas under the COVID-19 restrictions has offered IGNITION an excellent opportunity to further increase people’s knowledge not only of greenspace and public parks but other types of green and nature-based solutions. Beyond the well-recognised benefits for human wellbeing, wildlife and community, the less-known benefits for stormwater management, heat reduction or the local economy can be brought into the public consciousness.

In addition, people are valuing their local outdoor spaces in another way; there is a willingness to support and actively engage in the creation of attractive greenspace and its maintenance. In the park survey, 91% of respondents were prepared to pay for items and services during the visit to public parks or greenspaces, although local authorities will not charge for access to the space. The most popular things people were willing to pay for included food and drink, equipment hire and purchasing plants or trees to take home. Respondents also showed a willingness to donate and were most in favour of projects that support wildlife, planting of trees and woodland, reducing the effects of climate change, and community growing spaces.

On a wider level, spending more time outdoors during the pandemic could possibly encourage citizens to make their private gardens, courtyards, facades and roofs greener as well. Furthermore, the strong support of citizens as users of greenspace is a clear signal to public decision-makers and private investors to prioritise more greenspace and nature-based solutions. This demand can be further explored to make it one of the pillars of new business models to finance nature-based solutions.

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