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Green Hubs As Social Inclusion And Community Engagement

September 21, 2011

This paper proposes a possible framework to examine concepts of public space in relation to culture, knowledge, community engagement and inclusion. It is not a challenge to current ideas about the sustainable development of public space, but offers additional perspectives arising from wider debates about the importance of understandings in shaping resilience, cohesion and sense of place.

A version of this paper was also published in the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers – Municipal Engineer, Volume 164 Issue 3, September 2011, pp. 167-174.

Green space can be an agent for social cohesion and the sustainable development and inter-connectedness of communities. The shift required to achieve this is to perceive green space, not just as a benign and pleasant passive context, but actually as a potentially pro-active force for community sustainability, cohesion and engagement and wider social inclusion – to move from conventional ideas about green ‘space’ to the more nuanced idea of green ‘hubs’, as one way to enhance communities’ well-being through genuine stakeholder engagement and social inclusion.

How this shift might be achieved is a complex matter, comprising a combination of skilled professional input and the particular insights which only residents and citizens ‘on the ground’ can provide in any given instance.

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Ways to structure and utilise the public realm are already amongst the prime concerns of many civil engineers.   There is nonetheless a case for exploring ideas around what might be termed the ‘community and cognitive’ aspects of public space – in other words, the real-life locations where culture, knowledge, ‘knowing’ and  communality do, or might, co-incide; and what may transpire when these conjunctions actually occur.  Some work in this general area is now beginning to emerge – not least the development of, for instance, the British Library’s Sustainable Cities initiative 1 and Natural Capital Initiative partnership  2 programme, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)’s Sustainable Urban Environment initiative 3.   All of these facilities offer much food for thought about what the ‘green’ physical environment agenda really comprises.

This current discussion will however be more specifically focused on the scope of / for accepted and potential social interactions relating to green space and communities. These thoughts are offered in the hope of encouraging more debate about the ways that green space can or might produce positive and beneficial synergies with concerns for the cultural enhancement and social inclusiveness of given locations.

It is increasingly recognised that the physical formulation of public space has real consequences for the overt and visible activities which occur in it; but the parallel recognition of the community, cultural and cognitive or perceptual impact perhaps has been slower to emerge – though in both cases such recognition certainly exists at one level or another in at least some professional and civic dialogues.

There is substantive evidence, for instance, that crime can be designed ‘in’ or ‘out’ of a location such as a housing development (cf the Home Office ‘Design Against Crime’ initiative 4), and increasingly this consideration is a part of how the physical shape of a community is brought together.   Less thought however may be given to those aspects of location which are not so easily measured, or which over time shape understandings rather than direct behaviour.  Yet it is these less immediately obvious factors which may have the most communal impact for issues such as social inclusion in the longer term.

One interesting example of how public space can provide a positive stimulus (or not) to the understanding of social engagement and inclusion arises from consideration of green space.

Green space

Amongst the many organisations which have focused specifically on green space are the UK Department for Communities and Local Government  4a(Planning Policy Guidance 17: Planning for Open space,  Sport and Recreation, 2002), the  Utah-based not-for-profit Center for Green Space Design  5   and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) 6  which is the British Government’s advisor on architecture, urban design and public space.

CABE offers a useful typology of urban green space  as below 7, 8:

§         Parks and gardens

§         Natural and semi-natural urban green spaces

§         Green corridors

§         Outdoor sports facilities

§         Amenity green space

§         Provision for children and teenagers

§         Allotments, community gardens and city farms

§         Cemeteries and churchyards

§         Accessible countryside in urban fringe areas

To this can be added the somewhat wider typology of green space proposed by the Center for Green Space Design, which considers both urban and rural locations.

This is summarised as being the CEDAR approach 9  – green space may be seen as having

§         Cultural

§         Ecological

§         Developmental

§         Agricultural  &

§         Recreational value.

To quote:

The CEDAR approach allows a community to understand, locate and evaluate its unique open spaces in terms of cultural, ecological, developmental, agricultural and recreational (CEDAR) characteristics. An inclusive method to land assessment, the CEDAR approach truly addresses all types of open space, because every open space falls within one or more of the CEDAR categories. When a community determines which of its open spaces are important for cultural, ecological, developmental, agricultural and recreational reasons, a community gains valuable insight into the legacy it wants to preserve for future generations.

Dozens of specific types of open spaces fall within the cultural, ecological, developmental, agricultural and recreational (CEDAR) categories of open space mentioned above. For example, ecological open spaces include slopes, water quality, drainages, geological features, wildlife habitat, vegetation, and ecological corridors.

There is, then, substantial consensus about what the core factors in developing understandings of green space should be, all of them critical considerations.  Furthermore, both organisations draw attention to the importance of ‘green corridors’ which, as the Center for Green Space Design notes, can provide recreational trail space, zone buffers, wildlife migration paths, community separators and agricultural spaces, often in areas of land which would otherwise be ‘too small to farm and too big to mow’ [ibid].

Of even more direct significance in the present debate however, is the mission statement of the Center for Green Space Design, which advocates the ‘equitable and affordable preservation of valuable community green space and the implementation of quality patterns of growth’.  The focus of this mission is to identify, for example, viewpoints, culturally and historically significant locations, ‘outdoor classroom’ sites and cultural and scenic corridors.

Here is an emphasis which approaches consideration of the conjunctions of the physical and community / socially held perceptual aspects of green space.

Yet still perhaps something needs to be added.  The appreciation of green space impact on and interaction with people is there;  but does it take us far enough in seeing how this can be employed to enhance and extend the meanings of these impacts and interactions?

Green space is certainly valued and indeed actively nurtured by many with responsibility for the public realm, but is it true in general that green space, however well managed, is still seen largely as a passive backdrop to the activities of the human beings it hosts?

Could it be that in such passive perceptions we lose sight of some of the potential which green space offers for improving cultural and social inclusion and development?


The functions of green space detailed above demonstrate some of the numerous stakeholding interests which it encompasses.

Amongst the stakeholders of green space are those who formally own it (whether that ownership is public or private), those who use it (whether for work, rest or play), and those (probably, given the now-recognised critical importance of greening, all of us) who have an interest in its provenance and future upkeep.

Nonetheless, there is, as CABE has pointed out 7 a challenge for the management of green space, in that interests in it are frequently not well, if at all, co-ordinated.  Despite the exemplars provided by the CEDAR process (above), there is a general dearth of well-documented dialogue between all parties concerned (planners, residents, environmentalists, engineers of several sorts, local councillors and many more) about how the use and development of green locations might be determined. As we have noted, this is not helped by the multiple ownerships and responsibilities involved – public and private landowners, national, regional and local governance and inevitably some designations of use which may not reflect current activity in these changing times.

There are now many exemplars of good practice; current instances might include the serious efforts by government and local authorities in recent years to renovate historic public parks across the UK, incorporating both traditional features and more recent eco-environmental requirements.  Nonetheless some random (but contemporary and very real) examples perhaps illustrate that there remains work on cross-disciplinary green space collaboration  – not only by planners and engineers, but liaising between all of us – still to be done.   It is difficult in the light of these contemporary examples to find evidence of consensus about the functions of public and open space, let alone to argue that the potential for community life and sustainability of such space has been generally recognised or harnessed:

* A small downtown city centre patch of wasteland is mysteriously cultivated to produce vegetables;  the authorities destroy it.

* Dogs are permitted unleashed in a large urban green space;  mothers with prams and small children are reported to be too nervous to go there.

* A group of local volunteers want to put on a community celebration using an open area at the end of their street;  the licensing costs imposed by the city council are huge and the event has to be cancelled.

* Heritage funding is acquired to renovate the public realm of a city park; in returning to the exact intentions of the original designer, and to the horror of local environmental activists, significant numbers of healthy and non-hazardous trees and shrubs are felled – thereby reducing the park’s ‘city lung’ effect and preventing birds from nesting.

* A inner-city road-widening scheme involves the destruction of many homes, yet still fails to provide any crossings for pedestrians to move between two previously separated communities and their local playing field.

* Some farmers neglect to keep their premises tidy and actively resent holiday-makers; some visiting city dwellers fail to understand that farming is an earthy business.

* Fishing is permitted in the lake of a city park, even though water birds are reported to meet distressing ends because of this.

* Gates to public footpaths which significantly cut the distance between one suburban location and another are padlocked to prevent cyclists using the route – at the same time as the local health authority is promoting a ‘walk to work / school / the shops’ programme.

* Although there is dense woodland nearly, some wildlife conservationists oppose lighting for another short-cut pedestrian route between inner-city communities because it might disturb the bats.

* A complex system of traffic lights is introduced at a major urban tourist venue route which might otherwise have provided both traffic calming and a natural amphitheatre for open-air performances.

* A small ‘green’ area developed on the inner-city site of a demolished house is fenced, gated and proclaimed a ‘community garden’ – and then left for years to become a place of desolation.

* The location of facilities for travellers and skateboarders becomes a major local media issue.

* A suburban green gym falls into such disrepair that it is removed for health and safety reasons.

* Rural walkers’ rights of way are regularly contested by landowners or ignored by farmers.

* An enclosed private housing development has only one pedestrian path to the few neighbouring amenities – but the barely used route involves walking though a tunnel behind the estate and under a disused railway.

* The sale to a supermarket of a nondescript piece of land owned by a university is opposed vigorously, even though the university wants to use the sale proceeds to enhance the general sports provision it offers students.

* One person’s privacy hedge is another’s daylight blocker.

* One small children’s playground is provided for an enormous inner-city park;  and it is located a long way from the part of the park which links with an area of severe social deprivation – whilst the adjacent few open-access tennis courts (an attraction for local young people from that area) are left in broken disarray.

* Waiting lists for allotments in some areas of the UK can be many times longer than the list of those who actually hold this facility; yet most towns and cities have large areas of unused or even derelict land owned by educational, health and other civic authorities.

The list could go on, but perhaps the point is made.  Typologies of land use may well exist, but there seems to be little consensus about what green space is ‘for’, when it comes to the practical determination of its functions.

Further, as previously noted, in the UK at least this lack of focus is not helped by the fact that most public space is overseen by planning policy (parks, recreation, etc) whilst green infrastructure (including water, brown field, grey field) is controlled by other agencies 10.

Indeed, by no means all visible and ‘usable’ green space is available for determination in the wider public interest, sometimes because the land ownership is strictly private and sometimes because, whilst there is a legitimate public interest, use is formally determined in a way which does not facilitate wider considerations of engagement and green space development.

Nonetheless, we can identify from the above random observations a range of (‘types’ of) people for whom green space is significant, and for whom in this regard aspects of culture or diversity / inclusion or understanding / knowledge of the contexts might be pertinent issues.  This list includes for example ‘people-as-private-citizens’ who are

* young / older

* carers of others

* active / less personally mobile

* without private transport

* socially / economically disadvantaged

* heritage / culturally conscious

* environmentally / eco- conscious

* keen on horticulture (food and / or recreational gardening).

And, in a different way, the list also implicates ‘people-as-those-in-authority’ whose duties include making decisions about how green space issues in the public domain and in private business are determined.

CABE’s good practice guide on Green Space Strategies 7, like others, notes that it is difficult to find the commonalities which facilitate action in this complex and busily contested field.  As in the rest of real-time life, when it comes to green space, stakeholding is difficult terrain.

Green and common ground for the future

It is easy, from some conventional professional perspectives, to forget that health and wellbeing, recreation and environmental issues are equally important whoever and wherever people are.  People have different – and more, or less, mainstream – ways of expressing it, but these are pressing themes common to all faiths and cultures, and to all ages and both genders of the human race.

This observation alone should put green concerns towards the top of any agenda which addresses sustainability, whether environmental, social or economic;  and it surely follows from this that green space is an equally critical matter for those concerned with physical space and the public realm.

It is opportunities to develop praxis, that interconnectivities of general principles and practical applications, which are probably of most interest to civil engineers and their colleagues.

The opportunities around green space and inclusion now beginning to be identified are both challenging and potentially very rewarding in these respects.  Green space offers scope, for instance, for:

* social hubs;

* commonality of interest;

* celebration of cultures and communities;  and

* opportunities for knowledge and knowing.

Social hubs: To start then with the idea of green space as ‘social hubs’.  These are the physical places where, at least hypothetically, everyone can meet on an equal basis; or, put another way, the great outdoors is a great leveller – and a great host.

As an example, the scope for using green space inclusively in this way is enormous not only in the suburbs, where informal meeting points may be sparse, but also in areas of disadvantage such as parts of the inner city, or some of the more desolate areas of run-down terraced streets or housing estates where housing density may be greater, but facilities are often not.

In all these instances, the fundamental requirements are the same – safe, mobility accessible, interesting and pleasant.  But beyond the basics, the big question is, can everyone whom the green space serves, whoever they are, actually get to it easily; and will everyone want to?

Arguably, these questions are even more important in areas of social and / or economic deprivation than in the leafier parts of town.  This is where the notion of green space social hubs might come into its own – not least because one important aspect of green space is that it is usually free (in the financial sense) to access, and it is informal – so no-one need feel intimidated by being there.  These factors can be critical when it comes to social inclusion and diversity, yet they are not much considered by either environmentalists or civic planners in the context of the uses of physical, and especially green, space 11.

Only time will tell whether it works, but there is a strong case for actively developing ‘green hubs’ in areas where people have difficulties finding places to meet informally as neighbours.  Examples of where this already occurs might be the civic spaces of Mediterranean cities such as Toulouse or Barcelona, with their city centre park seats and the Spanish summer tradition of el paseo, or indeed the recently introduced idea in the UK of the mid-summer ‘Big Lunch’ 12, which is being promoted as a means of getting residents of a street or area to meet each other and share, amongst other things, vegetable seedlings.

There is a good case for experimenting with development of green hubs at the interface of different neighbourhoods, in the hope that, properly managed, they will encourage wider connections and perhaps the breaking down of sometimes dysfunctional ‘comfort zones’ which may be inhibiting socio-economic advancement and connection.

Commonality of interest: As the Tottenham MP, David Lammy, has noted in his 2008 article for SERA Magazine 13, there is sometimes an unspoken general assumption that ‘green issues’ are of most concern to scientifically well-informed westerners.  This belief is difficult to sustain, once it is recognised that, amongst many other examples, a basic tenet over the ages of Islam – a faith the philosophies of which were incepted millennia ago in the desert – has been conservation of resources, especially the fundamentals of life such as water.

Understanding the necessity to conserve and care for our planet has been a part of many belief systems for all recorded history;  to cite another steadfastly time-tested example, we may note the complex systems of crop and other produce rotation adopted over back in the mists of time in many parts of the world.

Here surely is an example of common interest between peoples of almost all cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, both genders and all ages.  But how often do we see active gearing of this critically important interest into the fabric of debate about the use of green space in, for instance, areas of multiple deprivation?  Where is the intelligence on matters such as the traditions of horticulture of various non-western cultures?  How can these be brought inclusively to bear on the use of non-productive land (perhaps not even initially ‘green’ space), especially in inner city communities where income to buy food is often modest?  How is the official ‘environmental’ dialogue of nations such as Britain being challenged to respect and value the beliefs of people not yet always in the mainstream of decision-making?

Some evidence of developments along these lines is beginning to emerge.   There are projects such as the Black Environmental Network (BEN) 14and the developing interest of the UK Environment Agency in faith-based understandings (e.g. Muslim, Christian and Jewish) of green issues in depressed areas such as parts of the Midlands and NorthWest of England 15.

And on another tack, we can also consider the commonalities of interest in health and well-being which are shared by people in all communities.  The evidence is as yet perhaps provisional, but Terry Hartig 16 suggests, on the basis of their work in examining correlations between income-related deprivation and both all-cause and circulatory disease mortality, that Richard Mitchell and Frank Popham 17 offer ‘valuable evidence that green space does more than pretty up the neighbourhood; it seems to have real effects on health inequality, of a kind that politicians and health authorities should take seriously.’

Similar concerns for health and well-being are also demonstrated in respect of young people by initiatives such as the National Children’s Bureau programme:  One Step, One World 16a, which has been developed in a very embedded way the actual views and hopes of young people themselves.

There remains nonetheless a way to go before we can truly say that the many commonalities of ‘green interest’ between people of historically different backgrounds and cultures have been fully harnessed not only for individual well-being but also to benefit wider social cohesion.

Celebration of cultures and communities:  Green space is never less, at least potentially, than common ground;  and it can also be so much more.   This does not mean, however, that such space cannot also offer the possibilities for the celebration of specific cultures and communities.

Simple examples of this potential can be seen in the roles which parkland constructions such as pagodas or bandstands may fulfil.   Similarly, but more generically, natural amphitheatres provide the opportunity for multiple use and interpretation, whilst gardens, naturalised green areas, waterways and boulevards are amongst the locations both for the development of themed natural environment and green space, and for the hosting of devised artefacts such as sculpture and woodcarvings.

Once the imagination is set to work, there can be few communities or cultural heritages which cannot use green space to celebrate and share these important aspects of people’s lives.   The challenge for those whose responsibility it is to shape and maintain this space, is to ensure the wherever possible default position in regard to its design and stewardship both enables and facilitates this multiple interpretation and use, rather than constraining it.

Opportunities for knowledge and knowing:   Communities and cultures are not static, at least in modern-day societies.  They depend on knowledge and knowing of many sorts, both formal and informal understandings and shared perceptions.  Given the contemporary significance of knowledge and understandings, and the power these confer (or otherwise, in their absence) when it comes to sustainable communities 18, 19, civic opportunities to enhance shared knowledge and understandings in our communities are important.

Sometimes this knowledge and these commonly held perceptions are already well-informed and offer constructive ways to cope with a rapidly changing world.  At other times, especially in closed or limited-access communities, the default understandings of how things work are not especially helpful to adaptation and positive sustainability for everyone;  ‘comfort zones’ can be reassuring and supportive for individuals and groups in the short term, but they can also be constraining when societies are in a state of flux.

Green hubs developed as natural meeting points might be one way to address this sort of issue.  These hubs can be designed so that people from any or all communities, men and women, young and older alike, feel comfortable and even enthusiastic about using them as points of civic information and knowledge exchange, as well as for more conventionally social functions.

But more than this, green hubs could become knowledge points in the sense that, say, school gardens already are – as places where people learn more about ‘how things happen’.   Whether these ‘things’ are related to obvious matters such as environmental issues, recycling and local history, or, more opportunistically, to less obvious aspects of modern day life in whatever way fits the circumstances, the process might be much the same.  Green hubs have the potential to be living community notice boards, points where knowledge and information can flow easily between different groups and individuals.   The scope for this development has hardly as yet been acknowledged, let alone properly explored.

Cultural, social and civic engagement

And so we move from formal stakeholding to real, meaningful engagement of the sort required for sustainable communities 20,  from passive ‘passing through’ to genuine involvement in the action and development of sense of place with all the cultural and personal connection which this brings.

The conventional view is perhaps that green space has ‘stakeholders’ whose primary interest is formal ownership and / or stewardship, and ‘users’ who are permitted to access this space and perhaps to determine at the margins how it is used.

Beyond that, there is seldom much formal debate.  But at the level of everyday human interaction, as we have seen above, disputes and multiple interpretations of green space and how it should be used remain commonplace.

The conflicting opinions which we have already noted about green space suggest that present ideas about what constitutes legitimate stakeholding can be unnecessarily constraining.  In a world where socio-economic and eco-environmental interests are so fatefully intertwined, we can ill afford to put aside the ‘green’ aspects of social and communal life.

Of course there are many other possibilities we might also consider, but perhaps the issues above will suffice to demonstrate how green space can

* enhance community-based stakeholding,

* engage people of all sorts, and

* build (socio-economic) community capacity.

Green hubs as a key tool in regeneration, resilience  and sustainability (in all their forms) takes us from a passive view of green space, to a much more pro-active position.   They can become places to nurture and develop our social and cultural lives, as well as locations to enhance our own physical health and life on earth as we know it.

At a time when, as never before, there is an urgent and pressing need to bring together the natural and social environments, green hubs offer one way forward.   Managers of public space already have extended professional competence in handling the green environment, and some of their work now does connect the natural and social worlds through what John Hannigan sees as co-constructionist theories of socionature 21.

It requires only a more general adoption of what in another era C. Wright Mills 22 called the ‘sociological imagination’  – that ability to see the world as others see it, and to learn from that how better to sustain community life –  now to perceive that green areas can serve many civic functions beyond those which are self-evidently critical to our physical environment.   We need to build on cross-disciplinary good practice, to move from dealing in green ‘space’, to an active community-directed engagement, and development of the potential of green ‘hubs’.


1.  BRITISH LIBRARIES Sustainable Cities Initiative.  See


3.  ENGINEERING AND PHYSICAL SCIENCES RESEARCH COUNCIL (EPSRC) Sustainable Urban Environment initiative .  See

4.  U.K. HOME OFFICE ‘Design Against Crime’ initiative.  See

4a.  UK Department for Communities and Local Government  (Planning Policy Guidance 17: Planning for Open space,  Sport and Recreation, 2002)



7.  CABE. Green Space Strategies ~ a good practice guide  London, 2004


8.  CABE: Skills to grow ~ Seven priorities to improve green skills space   London, 2009



10. I am grateful to my colleague Colin Dyas for a discussion of this point.

11. BURRAGE, H. Regeneration Rethink.  Public Service Review: Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Spring 2008, Issue 12, 86-87

[Regeneration re-think, Public Service Review: Transport, Local Government and the Regions, issue 12.]


13. LAMMY, D. Changing the Green Debate. New Ground SERA Magazine, Autumn  2008, 7-8.

[  / ]


15. ENVIRONMENT AGENCY.  Conference on Environmental issues under scrutiny, 6 November 2008, Lincoln


16. HARTIG, T.  (8 November 2008) Green space, psychological restoration, and health inequality. The Lancet, 8 November 2008, 372, Issue 9650, 1614 – 1615


16a.  National Children’s Bureau  One Step One World: Young People’s Vision of a Sustainable Future  (2002 ongoing)

17. MITCHELL, R. and POPHAM, F. (8 November 2008) Effect of exposure to natural environment on health inequalities: an observational population study. The Lancet, 8 November 2008, 372, Issue 9650,1655 – 1660


18. BURRAGE, H. From Regeneration To Sustainability: A Northern Take On Knowledge.  Keynote Lecture, NUREC 2008 conference, 28 July 2008, Liverpool.  See

19. BURRAGE, H. Knowledge, the new currency in regeneration.  Journal of Urban Regeneration and renewal,  October-December 2009, 3, No.2, 120-127


20. BURRAGE, H. Communities And The Public Realm: Places For People, 21 April 2008.  See

21. HANNIGAN, J.   Environmental Sociology, Routledge, London, 2006 (2nd edition)

22. WRIGHT MILLS, C. The Sociological Imagination, Oxford University Press, London, 1959

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A version of this paper (accepted for publication on 22 February 2010) was first published in Municipal Engineer Vol.164 Issue ME3 in September 2011.  It was subsequently shortlisted for an Institution of Civil Engineers 2012 Award.

The paper also formed one element of the work by Sarah Rose Robert, Adrienne McCurdy and Charlotte Gurr in their Master’s Degree Thesis on Neighbourhood Hubs: Engaging Communities for Sustainability (Blekinge Institute of Technology, Sweden, 2012).          


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