Encouraging residents to use and become familiar with their local green areas
Communication campaign in Seraing
One goal of the project is to improve residents’ relationship with their local parks. This improvement involves on the one side improving the material and ecological conditions of parks in terms of aesthetics, biodiversity and accessibility (which has been done through nature-based solutions, as discussed in previous articles), on the other side fostering attendance and use through psychological incentives. This article is drawn from the material provided by Tania Noel, PhD candidate at the research unit of Psychology and Neuroscience of Cognition (PsyNCog) of the University of Liège, and an online discussion between the UIA expert and Tania in May 2023. Tania and her team conducted two fieldworks, the first in 2020 and the second in 2022, to collect data on attendance before and after the psychosocial action. This article explores the context, the process and the outcomes of the initiative.
It is widely agreed that the presence of green areas in an urban context has positive effects on residents’ mental health and well-being. Besides, nature exposure seems to increase sociability, and even more so if green areas are agreeable and well maintained. The ambition of Seraing’s master park - the strategic plan that aims to provide the city with a pervasive green infrastructure - is to bring greenery close to all residents, especially in central neighbourhoods, which most of all suffer from a lack of greenery and poorly maintained green areas.
To meet this challenge, the APTBC project proposes to integrate two actions: renovating existing parks and promoting residents’ sense of belonging towards these areas, their active use and attendance. In a previous article and in the first zoom-in we discussed how the parks’ renovation was carried out and how it led to substantial improvements; in this article we explore how the project has tried to bring residents back to their parks through psychological incentives.
The chosen solution was based on a psychosocial action-research approach. This approach allows implementing transformations in an existing context, in order to produce changes in habits and social behaviours. This research-action was based on theories from social and cognitive psychology.
The overall goal of the psychosocial action was to analyse residents’ relationship with local green areas and increase their attendance rate. In particular the action focussed on two parks, Morchamps and Marêts, the two most devalued green areas in the target neighbourhoods.
 Twohig-Bennett, C., & Jones, A. (2018). The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes. Environmental research, 166, 628-637 (cited in the quantitative report, written by Benoit Dardenne and Tania Noel from PsyNCog).
The situation of the two parks at the beginning of the project is well described in the qualitative and quantitative inquiry that two project partners, PsyNCog and Nunaat, carried out in 2020. The neighbourhoods where the green areas are located - Morchamps park on the north side of the railroad and Marêts park on the south side - are more built-up than the rest of the city and greenery is poorly available. As it appears from police records and interviews with social actors, phenomena of vandalism, anti-social behaviours and petty crimes are reported in both neighbourhoods.
The two existing parks are characterised by a geographical position - surrounded by buildings and walls - which limits their visibility and appeal. The direct observation of the parks conducted for the qualitative inquiry accounts for a state of abandon and dilapidation for both of them, presence of scattered litter and dog waste, but also the existence of some infrastructures and amenities in decent shape. Some illegal activity linked to drug dealing was detected in both parks and in the Marêts park observers also noticed signs of the presence of homeless people.
According to the first survey, the two parks are acknowledged by residents in a similar way: they are both perceived as pretty unfriendly, not very lively and not very safe. In fact, perceptions regarding the parks showed a predominance of negative valence (89% for Morchamps and 73% for Marêts), with a focus on the perceived quality of the green areas, their cleanliness and their attendance. It is this perception that the project aims to improve, by taking action both on the parks material conditions through nature-based solutions and enhancing residents relationship with these parks via a psychological action.
The psychosocial action is conceived as twofold: research and action. This approach aims to feed theoretical knowledge while also pursuing outcomes on the field of action. Action research is organised as a cyclical process that starts with a phase of identification of the research question (diagnosing), followed by analysis and data collection (reconnaissance), planning and acting (design and implementation of the field action), then evaluation and monitoring, which allow for the cycle to restart - based on new data and analysis - and make adjustments.
In the case of APTBC, this process unfolded in four main steps:
During the first semester of 2020, the diagnosing and reconnaissance phases were carried out;
In September 2020 the action was planned;
In spring 2022 the action was implemented;
At the beginning of summer 2022 data were collected and analysed (evaluation and monitoring).
Between the phases 2 and 3, an experimental study was also carried out with the purpose of exploring, in an experimental setting, to what extent the attitudinal factor of psychological ownership correlated to attendance. In order to decide whether or not this factor could be used in the psychological action on the two parks to increase the attendance rate. How did this work?
The main assumption was that attendance is linked to many different factors, of which some are of a psychological nature. One of these factors - place attachment - is well known in literature and it is considered as positively correlated to place attendance. Nonetheless, place attachment is a difficult feeling to be handled via psychological actions because, on the one hand, its manipulation might take a lot of time; on the other hand, an increase in attendance (desired goal) would require that a strong emotion is elicited in the target population, which again is something difficult to achieve within the limits of the project.
For these reasons, Tania and the PsyNCog research team decided, by elaborating on the results of the first survey, scientific literature and interviews with local actors. This helped to choose an attitudinal factor which could be more easily manipulated to boost the attendance rate, for their testing. They chose the feeling of psychological ownership. Psychological ownership, or “the subjective feeling of owning a tangible or intangible object, place, or idea” is an attitudinal factor considered to be positively related to the need of control over a place, stewardship behaviours, hence to attendance.
The field intervention was set up as a binding communication campaign designed around the incentive of psychological ownership. The campaign conveyed to residents the idea that parks in their neighbourhood belong to them and that visiting and hanging out there is good for their well-being and health. Concretely, the campaign consisted of posters and flyers that were designed, displayed and distributed in April 2022 in the neighbourhoods and online. Data were collected from mid-April onwards.
Following the campaign, two measures were taken: self-reported attendance (obtained by collecting answers through a survey, asking the respondent to indicate how often he/she had had visited each park over the year) and observed attendance (measured by counting actual parks’ visits through the use of pedestrian counters at the parks’ entrances). The objective was to compare data collected in 2020 with data taken in 2022 to evaluate main indicators’ evolution throughout the project. It should however be noted that no causal inferences between data on self-reported attendance and the psychosocial intervention (the campaign) were made, due to the impossibility to determine unambiguously the factors affecting change among the multiple variables at play on the ground.
Collected data presented some limits:
Data were collected in two hardly comparable years: 2020, the year of the explosion of the Covid-19 pandemic and 2022, when most of the anti-Covid measures had been removed.
Between 2020 and 2022 the effect of the pandemic and the multiple actions of the project, especially nature-based interventions in the parks, interacted producing complex outcomes.
Observed attendance was impossible to measure for the Morchamps park, because of systematic vandalism. Counting posts were vandalised the same night they were placed at the park’s entrance, so the research team decided not to replace them and measure observed attendance only for the Marêts park.
The analysis of data, which is included in Tania Noel’s PhD thesis, has not been published yet. Nonetheless, we can report that at least two relevant indicators have shown improvements: the level of attractiveness and safety of the parks and self-reported attendance for both the green areas. As for self-reported attendance, Tania reminds that even if
It is not possible to isolate the impact of the different psychosocial levers activated, nor to consider that the manipulation of the feeling of psychosocial ownership has worked,
it is probably fair to consider that the communication campaign as a whole may be related to the observed attendance rate in the Marêts park.
The increase, though, might also be associated to the nature-based interventions realised for the project, which assured regular presence of workers during the day, permanent maintenance and cleaning, and relevant improvements in parks’ appearance and aesthetics.
A strong sense of psychological ownership is expected, in literature, to be linked to positive civic behaviour, Tania explains. At the same time, she assumes that the sense of ownership that the relation to an object or a place might generate can increase the perceived responsibility toward the same object or place, which in turn can lead to a controlling behaviour. Control over a territory perceived as “mine” - in our case a public park - can be exercised through civic practices but also through anti-social behaviours. As Tania explains, all the interventions on the park, including the placement of counting post, might have been perceived as very intrusive, as an attempt to occupy a territory, by those groups that hold the park every evening. These groups meet at the Morchamps park mostly in the evenings and leave it in bad shape (vandalism, litter). The park is isolated with respect to the main road network and it is enclosed on all sides by the rear walls of private housing, so that natural surveillance is very poor if not absent, especially at night. This territorial behaviour, which is a form of control over the park obtained by systematically damaging improvements or maintenance effort made during the day, is difficult to overturn unless a dedicated strategy is developed.
While the project’s actions have contributed to improve the quality of the Morchamps park and its appeal, as the indicators show, in the future it is important to consider the opportunity of taking action with an inclusive approach that involves residents, visitors and local actors to avoid the risk that positive outcomes are dissipated in the middle and long term.