What would ‘smart countryside’ look like?

Fo a start, these sheep would have wifi. Image: Getty.

Smart cities are often discussed as being the key to future urban living. The increase in capacity for more complex information can help solve human and environmental problems by saving energy and regulating traffic flow. But a new study has now highlighted the potential of adapting the concept of “smart” for national parks.

Historically, outdoor recreation gained its popularity because of its juxtaposition to urbanisation. Motivations included adventure, simplicity and immersion in “wilderness”, away from human progress. In many cases this is still true: we are often told that greater exposure to green space and natural environments benefits health and well-being.

But how can the so-called “smart” tech improve our relaxing countryside experience? The challenge lies in integrating technology into outdoor recreation while retaining these crucial elements of the experience. Here are some simple smart options for the future ramblers.

Waste control

The Lake District example suggests that sensors on bins can alert the national park authorities when they are full, which reduces the problem of litter and helps conserve the landscape. Research has shown that these kinds of messages work.

Smart car parks

It is also suggested that “smart” car parks will transmit information to motorists when car parks are full. This can reduce carbon emissions by reducing trips to multiple car parks. However, encouraging more travel by public transport and non-motorised modes of transport reduces carbon emissions more effectively. This alternative should be given priority.

Car-sharing apps

Planners and managers of national parks have long seen the need to reduce visitor car use. Aside from decreasing carbon emissions, visual pollution from large numbers of cars in natural areas is a long-standing problem. It takes away from the “natural” and “simple” aesthetics which are so important in attracting visitors.

There is considerable need to encourage car sharing, especially because the infrastructure in rural areas is less resilient to large numbers of cars. Academics are increasingly pointing to the power of new data sharing and smart capability to solve this through measures such as car-sharing apps and better planning for integrated travel.

People who travel to, from and within national parks can do so sustainably with greater confidence if they have reliable information on public transport – as well as walking and cycling options – at their fingertips.

Smartphone navigation

Research on walking tourism in natural settings highlights the growing use of mobile technology as a navigational aid. The internet is increasingly used both to showcase and research walks in national parks. But practitioners urge caution for more adventurous forms of recreation.

Interviews with national park staff revealed that in particular, mountain rescue services can be stretched when hillwalkers rely too much on technology. Navigating solely with a mobile phone or GPS cannot substitute map-reading skills when faced with difficulties.

Walkers in Windermere. Image: LDNP.

Walking tourists differ in their preference for heavily managed walking routes. Some look for relative simplicity of “wild” surroundings, isolation and solitude. Others prefer abundant directional signs, information and flat, well managed paths. These differences point to an important dichotomy as technology permeates more of the previously “untouched” areas of the world.


“Smart-free” is needed too

Technology is redefining how we engage with the natural environment. Sport England’s research on UK outdoor activity acknowledges a need for connectivity even in the most remote natural areas, and particularly for younger participants. Rapidly improving mobile technology and information capacity epitomise the fast society many live in.

There are clear benefits to integrating smart technology into rural and natural areas. Tourists in particular are a key focal point because of the capability for improving sustainability in national parks. But the wider implications surrounding this development still need to be considered.

The ConversationNational parks should continue to cater for all preferences and preserve some “smart-free” elements, enhancing the experience of those seeking adventure and wilderness. People should also rethink their relationship with nature. If smart technology can help the environment, preserve biodiversity and protect sensitive areas, then it should be considered as an antidote to past human negative effects.

Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.