The Rub of the Green
In June 2020 the BBC came under fire for suggesting non-white people are not welcome in the countryside. A report on its rural issues focussed TV show Countryfile said that Blacks, Asians and other minorities don’t feel welcome in rural areas, with some claiming they have experienced open racism.
In the episode, reporter Dwayne Fields reacted to recent Black Lives Matter protests by quoting a report commissioned and published in September 2019 by DEFRA, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. This government report concluded that ‘Many communities in modern Britain feel that these landscapes hold no relevance for them. The countryside is seen by both black, Asian and minority ethnic groups and white people as very much a “white” environment. If that is true today, then the divide is only going to widen as society changes. Our countryside will end up being irrelevant to the country that actually exists.’
Fields, reflecting on his own experiences, said people he spoke to “don’t view the UK countryside as somewhere that’s for them” and there are “barriers that black and ethnic minority people face when they come to the countryside”.
Clearly, this a complex issue. Ethnicity and the Rural Environment , summarised in Nina Morri’s literature review , quoted below, points to four main reasons ethnic minorities might not be regular visitors to the countryside:
1. In general, many ethnic cultures have a folklore or mythology that reveres and respects the countryside, but does not regard it as a leisure resource. In addition, the way in which British heritage is constructed as white and rural may evoke patriotic responses among white residents; it may also leave people of colour feeling that they do not share the same attachment to such symbolic icons.
2. ‘Getting out’ is often difficult and costly.
3. Free time for many people of colour is often devoted to ‘intracommunity’ activities and activities such as further and higher education.
4. Racism is another reason why people of colour do not visit the countryside in numbers commensurate with their numbers in society generally (Taylor, 1993). The authors discuss the notions of ‘native’ and ‘alien’ plants and wildlife.
We wanted to bring data to bear on this conversation and look at how much access ethnic minorities in the UK have to green spaces and how it compares to White people.
We combined two sources of data, one looking at local public access green space like parks, etc as well as another looking at land usage where we pulled out the undeveloped land. Combing these sources gave us a dataset which could be considered greenspace — be that urban or rural.
The dark green in the map below shows the result, and unsurprisingly perhaps, reflects an inverse population map at this level.
Using this data we can then start to look at which ethnic groups have access to that green space. To do this we looked at a 15-mile radius around each output area* in England and Wales and calculated the amount of green space within this area. We decided to weight the greenspace further away from the centre inversely to the distance — we felt this was important when considering access to greenspace, as clearly closer greenspace is more accessible to people.
*In England and Wales Output Areas are a census geography, they have approximately regular shapes and tend to be constrained by obvious boundaries such as major roads. OAs were required to have a specified minimum size to ensure the confidentiality of data. The minimum OA size was 40 resident households and 100 resident people, but the recommended size was rather larger at 125 households. Urban/rural mixes were avoided where possible; OAs preferably consist entirely of urban postcodes or entirely of rural postcodes.
Doing this gives us a Greenspace accessibility score for each output area which ranges from 0 (no greenspace within 15 miles) to 1 (the radial area is entirely greenspace within 15 miles).
Interestingly the data points to Richmondshire in North Yorkshire as the area with the best access to Greenspace. The area with the worst, perhaps unsurprisingly is Westminster, in the centre of London.
We can then start to understand the relationship between access to greenspace and ethnicity below using the below relationship map:
The map is dominated by light grey areas, which are those with a high proportion of White people who have good access to the countryside. In fact, 30% of the population is covered by these areas.
The image below shows the total populations (in the 2011 census) covered by these populations, it’s striking that of the areas with a low population of white people that have good access to the countryside cover just 0.08% of the population, or just ~45k people.
We can then look in more detail at the data, the Output Area level of geography can be difficult to dig into being so fine-grained and so in the visualisation below we aggregate the data to Middle Super Output Area — a higher level of geography.
The majority of the areas are clumped in the top right cluster of the chart, but the labelled areas in the top left are of interest, being the areas which have the lowest proportion of white people but with good access to green space — these are both in Pendle, Lancashire and specifically both cover the town of Nelson.
Nelson is a town of 4th Generation Pakistanis, bought owho came to work in the mills in the 1950s. These mills have long since departed, but the Pakistani community remains but deprivation is rife, almost comparable to inner-city levels, and unemployment is high among Asian males. The White people have retreated out of the town or up the hill out of town, and the Pakistani community huddles in the towns dilapidated terraced housing, leaving a town divided.
Nelson isn’t the picture postcard of ethnic minority access to the countryside, that much is clear.
Local Authority Differences
Moving to an even wider view, of Local Authority, we can start looking for differences in where people live to understand the differences in local geographies and how Black and Asian communities often, for various reasons, benefit from much less access to green space than the White population in the same area.
The areas with the biggest differences are Bradford, in Yorkshire -where inner-city housing and deprivation borders richer, greener, whiter countryside - but also includes Bromley, Croydon and Sevenoaks.
We can use satellite imagery, here in Bromley, to see how communities are clustered (high percentages show up deeper blue) to inner-city, developed areas. The greener suburbs of London being the areas where the proportion of White people is highest.
Our analysis here isn’t groundbreaking, to say that ethnic minorities go where housing is cheaper and work is easier to find is clear without the data we’ve parsed. However, the data shows a stark difference in how much access ethnic minorities have to green space. It’s clear there’s a lot of work to do in overcoming the barriers that that reduced access to the countryside brings, and in making the countryside truly accessible to all.
The Guardian journalist VV Brown recently talked about her experience as a Black woman living in the countryside in this article responding to the comments in Countryfile:
The countryside is a territorial place, full of imperial nostalgia, that harks back to a to a time when black people were not welcome. The very concept of Britishness is wrapped up in images of the fields of England — and I do not represent that concept. Yet, as part of a dual-heritage family leaving an overpriced city to set up life beyond the smoke, I am now a representation of the countryside’s future.
I love the countryside: it’s where I want my children to grow up, and it’s where my family has built our for ever home. I should not have to feel like an outsider. It should feel like I have a right to live here, rather than a privilege.
Amen. The 2011 Census is old data, 2021 brings hope that things may be changing, but also the opportunity for renewed debate with fresh data.
Many thanks for Gwilym Lockwood for his invaluable thoughts and comprehensive feedback through the analysis and write-up of this piece.
 Agyeman, J. and Spooner, R. 1997: Ethnicity and the rural environment. In Cloke, P. and Little, J. , editors, Contested countryside cultures: otherness, marginalisation and rurality, London: Routledge.
 Morris, Nina. (2003). Black and Minority Ethnic Groups and Public Open Space Literature Review.