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January 25, 2012

Getting rid of barriers

We’re forever being told that it’s good for us to experience the great outdoors, to get in touch with the natural world around us.  But for many people, particularly those who are in some way excluded or disadvantaged, there are distinct barriers that get in the way. An interesting piece of action research has been carried out by six community groups across Scotland that points towards how these barriers might be removed.


Research carried out by six community groups across Scotland has highlighted the things that could help excluded and disadvantaged people overcome the barriers that stop them from enjoying the outdoors.

The findings, published this week, are the result of a two year project run by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Scottish Community Development Centre to identify successful ways of helping people from a range of backgrounds and circumstances get closer to nature. 

The groups taking part were:

Encouraging wider use of Blarbuie Woodland in Lochgilphead by people with a range of mental and physical health problems was the aim of the research carried out by Blarbuie Woodland Enterprise. “Our research has shown the importance of company in getting people to the wood – not just for support and transport, but also in building confidence,” said Hugh Fife from the group. “It has brought us into contact with new groups and has prompted us to work with the hospital service bus to promote this vital connection to the woodland.”

The GalGael Trust in Glasgow, which supports long-term unemployed adults with addiction, homelessness and mental health issues, looked at why people from deprived urban areas can find it so hard to get out and enjoy nature. They also gathered evidence on how deeply the disconnection from the natural world can affect physical and mental well-being. “Cultural heritage is often intertwined with natural heritage like a strand of DNA,” remarked Tam McGarvey of the trust. “Offering people a chance to get out in the landscape can go a long way to helping them retrieve a sense of connection and meaning.”

On the edge of Dundee, the Broughty Ferry Environmental Project, a community based initiative that helps local people develop and deliver environmental projects, from habitat creation to outdoor art, explored why their approach attracted and retained volunteers. “We found that our wide interpretation of environmental activity helps attract people of differing interests,” explained Ann Lolley from the project. “Many of the folk who come along then go on to interact with the environment in lots of ways.”

The Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) Chrysalis Project, also in Dundee, considered what helps and hinders people with a mental health issue from getting out and enjoying nature. “Organisations promoting the outdoors to people with mental health issues need to get people out to experience nature, so they can appreciate the benefits and gain confidence from doing it,” said Kevin Bruce of SAMH.

The Clackmannanshire Disability Awareness Group looked at the same issue from the viewpoint of people with a disability. They are using their findings to lobby for increased wheelchair-friendly transport and better information on outdoor places for people with disabilities. As a result of their research, the group has already been invited to help develop access at Gartmorn Dam Country Park. “Our research has confirmed what the issues are, and given us the confidence we need to speak to people about our recommendations,” explained Enid Trevett from the group.

South west of Glasgow, Neilston Development Trust wanted to find out the views of the community on the current and future use of a former mill estate on the edge of the village. Once a jewel in the local landscape, the woodland and gardens are now overgrown. “The research uncovered a deep vein of interest about Cowden Hall estate that spans the generations,” commented the trust’s Laura Carswell. “We got lots of feedback on what improvements would make people more likely to visit – this will help us make it a valued place again for enjoying the outdoors.”

Commenting on the research projects, Elaine Macintosh, Scottish Natural Heritage project officer said: “Despite the differences between the groups, the projects all found that nature can help transform people’s lives and make valuable connections – both to other people and to their local place – resulting in stronger, more inclusive communities.

“They also reported many other benefits: improving fitness, health and well-being; building confidence; learning new skills; a sense of peace, perspective and identity; being part of something bigger; having fun and sharing experiences; finding creative inspiration and a place for spiritual reflection.”

Each of the groups carried out their own ‘action research’ project – defined as research done by the people themselves rather than on them by a third party, with the aim of achieving change. A range of methods were used, including storytelling and campfire focus groups, as well as more traditional questionnaires and case studies.

Overall the groups invested 286 days of their own time and gathered the views of almost 400 people from Glasgow to Dundee.

The groups found that for many people it is important to have someone to go with on an outdoor visit. Having something to do while there can give meaning and purpose and it was clear that people took pride in making a difference to their local area. A wide range of activities, practical and cultural, could encourage more people to get involved. Information on where to go and transport can sometimes be an issue.

Elaine said: “People of all backgrounds and circumstances should be able to enjoy nature but that isn’t always the case. We wanted to help change that by finding out more about the issues people face and how to help them enjoy nature more often.

“SNH and Scottish Community Development Centre (SCDC) have learnt a great deal from supporting the groups to carry out their own research, and the groups themselves have developed skills, knowledge and understanding that are directly relevant to their work. Not only has it allowed them to investigate issues that are important to them, it has also increased their confidence and given them evidence to apply for funding and lobby for change. It has been inspiring to see the commitment that people have to make changes for the better.”

A guide on the techniques used in the project, ‘Action Research in the Community’, has also been published by SCDC and Education Scotland.

Fiona Garven, the director of SCDC said: “We are passionate about action research as a method of working with local people to genuinely empower them to take control of their own issues and to take forward their aspirations.

“The research report is just one outcome – what we also know is that by going through a process of local inquiry, the individuals and groups involved build their knowledge of their own communities and the issues which concern them. They build their networks and their contacts, they find out who to influence, where to get funds and they develop plans on how to take forward local action.”