Open Data: Using Footfall to Measure Parks & Open Spaces Usage In the Pandemic

The pandemic saw limitations placed on daily lives in ways that few had imagined. Measures to limit mobility and social contact came into force for safety. Travel to work places were off-limits to many workers. Most shops and leisure facilities closed.

It’s fortunate that, for the most part, access to parks and open spaces remained possible. As one of the few public spaces available to residents, these spaces took on an important new role. And flexible working, closer families and less choice made these places popular.

In this context, the UK’s parks and open spaces presented an ideal solution. Outdoor places offer lower chances of transmission than indoors. Many studies promote the physical and mental health benefits of open spaces. These properties were especially sought-after during sedentary, solitary lockdowns.

Huq used its data to measure footfall and dwell time across England’s 149,200 parks and green spaces. In contrast to destinations like high-streets and retail centres, the resilience is clear. Park visits slowed during lockdowns, but stayed as much as 75% above high-streets.



Trips to parks and green space were more meaningful to visitors too. The duration of the average visit increased 40%+ during the first lockdown. It peaked again to 31% during the second. This trend has continued until today, averaging 16% over 2019 levels in 2021. But not all green spaces are alike, and parks usage varies regionally.

Parks and open space usage has grown through the pandemic. And now that residents have had a taste of the outdoors, how will this trend continue? This study looks back over the last two pandemic years to uncover the themes that shape parks usage in the UK.

This study uses mobility data from Huq combined with 149.2K parks and open space locations available from the Ordnance Survey. The number of data points sampled exceeds 30Bn, making it the first UK ‘big data’ study of parks and open space usage.


Contents

Chapter One

Methodology: the data we used and how we used it to study parks mobility

Chapter Two

Observations: the trends we produced and what we found out from them

Chapter Three

Discussion: comparing trends to find patterns and points of difference

Chapter Four

Conclusions: making sense of these observations to develop outcomes


Methodology

This study of parks and open space usage uses mobility data from Huq Industries. Mobility data supports a wide range of outputs. For this analysis we have chosen to focus on footfall – the volume of park visitors – and dwell – how long they spend there.

The locations of parks and open spaces are available through the Ordnance Survey. In England alone, the number of locations measures 149,200. This includes parks and spaces of all sizes. The Ordnance Survey has also categorised each location according to type. We enriched this further by mapping each park to NUTS2 regions (ie. East of England, West Midlands) sourced from the Office for National Statistics.

By combining Huq’s mobility data with parks and open spaces locations we can learn how they are used. These dimensions allow us to study usage both in detail and as a whole. The contrasts between them and how they deviate from the norm can underpin our learnings. The period chosen for this study runs from January 2020 to present. The number of data points sampled exceeds 30Bn, making it the most extensive study of its kind.

This analysis uses data provided by CommunityVision®, Huq’s product for Local Government teams. CommunityVision® helps Economic Development and open space managers improve their centres and communities. The underlying technology behind CommunityVision is Google BigQuery and Data Studio. These are among the most advanced and scalable big data products available.

In this study, we will explore parks and open spaces usage nationally by region and by type. Looking at the data in this way allows us to offer observations about parks usage. And by studying the past and present we can make forecasts about their future.

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    Observations

    Huq used insights provided by CommunityVision® to detect footfall and dwell-time trends. As we’re interested in change over time, the values are compared to a pre-pandemic period and shown as an index. 100 on each chart represents ‘normal’.

    Open spaces through the pandemic

    Footfall into parks and open spaces in the United Kindom

    For parks and open spaces across England as a whole, the first pandemic brought a sharp decline in usage. Between March 8th and April 12th 2020 footfall slumped 40 percent from 90 to 50pts.

    This represents the low-point of the first lockdown as people responded to measures. A fall of 40 percent is significant but it is also resilient compared with other place types. A study by PWC using Huq mobility data found that footfall in some business districts fell by as much as 71pts. Of particular note is the rate of recovery across parks and open spaces as the first lockdown ended.

    From June 14th to July 12th footfall soared 39 percent to recover to within 5pts of previous levels. This series is not adjusted for seasonality. One can expect parks and open spaces usage to grow during warmer months. But the pronounced shape of recovery at this date is unique.

    The strength of reaction among visitors has waned during successive lockdowns. The rate of decline and speed of recovery has not been as sharp again at any time since. But the dates and force of measures during later lockdowns also vary by region and severity. This adds to the range of possible factors responsible for the trends we can observe. Important to note is how the total series low came on March 7th 2021. Footfall sunk to 43 percent of pre-pandemic levels, 7pts below the first lockdown.

    During this third lockdown the Delta variant of Covid-19 had become established. Other variants such as the ‘Brazilian’ variant had also arrived in England. Limited outdoor socialising would not yet be possible until March 29th. Footfall during the summer months stood at around 70 percent.

    Open spaces through the pandemic

    Dwell-time and footfall across parks and open spaces

    Dwell-time, a measure of the average duration of visits, also tells a story. At the start of the first lockdown dwell time rose sharply from 97pts to 137pts, an increase of 40 percent. This shows that while the number of parks visitors declined, those that did stayed for longer. Visit duration is a powerful measure of how important visits are to parks users. The longer visitors stay there, the more they do there and the greater the benefit.

    The trend in dwell-time since January 2020 mirrors footfall almost exactly. During the first lockdown, parks and open space footfall fell 40 percent. At the same time duration of each visit rose by 40 percent. Dwell-time normalised in June 2020, showing levels at 100pts to 110pts over the summer. The average visit duration had reverted to pre-pandemic levels in early September. This also marks the low-point for hospitalisations arising from Covid-19.

    Policy for managing restrictions in late-summer / early-autumn 2020 was left to local authorities. As a result parts of the country experienced different lockdowns at different times. The fact of this combined with increased cases again drive dwell-time upwards. From the 29th September to 29th November the average length of park visits rose 20 percent. There it stayed until January when a full lockdown came into effect for the third time.

    In a similar way to during the first lockdown footfall across parks and open spaces fell 43pts. Dwell-time increased a further 20 percent, peaking at 135pts over pre-pandemic levels. Dwell time in parks had by then held above January 2020 since the previous September. From April 2021 a phased easing of lockdown came into effect. With that, footfall across England recovered to the average observed since summer 2020. Dwell-time decreased but slowly through May, June and July. By September 2021 the index stood at 106pts.

    Since the first lockdown, visits to parks and spaces are 34 percent below January 2020 levels. The average time spent per visit has remained high at 13 percent above then. As the UK and beyond looks towards a new wave of infections, dwell-time again appears to be pushing up.

    The appeal of different types of space

    Footfall across parks and open spaces by type

    A significant variance has emerged between different types of space since January 2020. Visits according to type have varied by as much as 32% from the same original starting point. The types of park and open space included in this report are: Allotments Or Community Growing Spaces, Cemeteries, Golf Courses, Other Sports Facilities, Play Spaces, Playing Fields, Public Parks Or Gardens, Religious Grounds and Tennis Courts.

    Footfall across each type has kept roughly the same cardinality over the full period. In order words, the order from highest to least performing remains constant. During the first lockdown in March 2020, visits to all types of open space declined sharply. By April 19th an order had emerged, with sports-focused spaces among the hardest hit. Golf courses were down 54pts and other sports facilities (such as lawn bowls) down 58pts. Also affected were public parks and gardens, down 55pts.

    The most resilient include allotments at down 43% and play spaces at 47%. As the UK emerged from lockdown in July 2020, spaces of all types demonstrated rapid recovery. Golf courses recorded the greatest rise in footfall, up 69% from mid-April to July. Allotments, religious grounds and playing fields also recovered well with gains of 51-56%. Public parks, tennis courts and other sports made up the three lagging space types, up between 34-37%.

    All types remained even through the autumn and until January 2021. Footfall across the spectrum ranged between 57pts and 78pts compared to pre-pandemic levels. Two exceptions are golf courses and tennis courts which trend down over the period. This is likely linked to normal seasonality.

    The third full lockdown from January 2021 saw the same order emerge as in the first lockdown in April 2020. But with an average lockdown-low of 42pts versus 50pts in 2020, footfall was suppressed all round. Golf courses again showed fastest growth emerging from this period. Dwell time at golf courses has also outperformed other space types since summer 2020. Recovery during the summer of 2021 was more gradual than in the previous year, taking three vs. one month to peak.

    Regional contrasts and variations

    Parks and open space usage by region

    Footfall from region to region has deviated by as much as 70% from the same original starting point. London is without doubt an outlier, tracking as much as 50pts lower than the mean of other regions. With London excluded from the set variation across the group is softer with a maximum of 29%. The NUTS Level 1 standard regions explored in this report are:

    • East Midlands
    • East of England
    • London
    • North East
    • North West
    • South East
    • South West
    • West Midlands
    • Yorkshire and The Humber

    Of those outside London, the South West was least affected, down 42%. The greatest fall was observed in the North East, down 54%. Footfall across parks and green spaces in London fell faster and more profoundly. By April 19th, visitor levels had dropped 63pts to 37 percent. That’s a third of what it had been a week prior.

    With the easing of restrictions in July 2020, all regions rebounded with enthusiasm. That is, except for London which rebounded only softly. Having fallen furthest in April, the North East recorded the greatest rise in parks visits by July, up 76%. The East Midlands, South West and North West all rebounded with increases of 53%. London, the South East and East of England made up the three lagging regions, up 16%, 42% and 46% respectively.

    Footfall in all regions remained even through the autumn and until January 2021. Parks usage across non-London regions ranged between 60pts and 82pts. London ranged between 35pts and 42pts, approximately 50% of other regions. What makes London a special case is a complex story for another report. But the compound effect of the pandemic and migration away from the city plays a role. The North East and South West continue to lead in parks and open spaces usage during this period.

    The national lockdown from January 2021 saw parks and open space usage fall in all regions. The North East – the highest performer – fell by the greatest proportion, 34%. London, the least recovered during 2020, fell 15%. The average across all regions was 25%, almost half the decline seen during the first lockdown. The speed of reaction to measures was also softer, taking three months to reach the lowest point.

    Recovery during the summer of 2021 was more gradual than in the previous year. Footfall in parks and open spaces took 3.5 months to regain summer 2020 levels. This time London outperformed other regions holding at 50pts, 10% above levels in 2020. As we approach a new period of restrictions and the winter months, parks and open spaces usage is falling. As time unfolds it will become clear which trends are systemic and which are temporary.


    Discussion

    Certain observations stand out from the parks usage data reported. Some exist as high-level trends; others as differences between types and regions. It’s possible that successive interventions have dulled public reaction to policy. Except immediately following the first lockdown, footfall has failed to recover consistently, anywhere. The North East and South West regions come closest with parks footfall often above 90pts.

    These rural, scenic regions are home to popular tourism destinations. In 2020-21 they may well have attracted more than their usual share of visitors and residents. All this costs London, where fewer visitors, commuters and residents keep footfall suppressed. Parks and open spaces footfall in London is an outlier with levels at 60% of other regions since April 2020.

    Whether correlation or causation, there is an uncanny relationship between footfall and dwell. With a Pearson value of -0.77, one can say that the fewer visitors to parks and open spaces, the longer they stay. Data to describe who uses parks during restrictions would help us to understand why this may be. Fewer daytime obligations due to furlough and physical or mental health needs may lead to longer visits. The lack of nurseries, childcare and leisure facilities during these periods may also lead to heavier use. All periods of lockdown have led to fewer visitors, visiting for longer.

    Differences in visitor levels across different types of open space are also meaningful. Like so much during the pandemic, they fall into two kinds – discretionary and essential. Spaces with sports focuses, ie. golf clubs and tennis courts, suffer the most during lockdowns. They also experience the fastest recovery as measures ease. This is indicative of pent-up demand among enthusiasts. Essential spaces like allotments and play areas performed throughout. This reflects the necessary facilities that they provide to residents.

    The shock of the first lockdown led to a fast and deep decline in parks footfall. It also yielded a strong bounce-back once restrictions eased. The second and third lockdowns produced a more muted response. The mean decline in footfall almost halved and took three times longer to take-hold.


    Conclusions and recommendations

    Parks and open spaces have served as a valuable refuge for all kinds of users through the pandemic. During each period of stricter measures we have observed footfall decrease.

    While this applies in all settings, parks and open spaces show comparative resilience. As footfall decreases, we can also observe dwell time – the average visit duration – increases. What this teaches us is that for a smaller subset of visitors, open spaces become more important to them. Whether it’s to counter stress, exercise or for childcare it’s clear that parks are essential places for some.

    Remote or flexi-working has also had an impact on the use of parks and green spaces. Parks usage outside London has been strong – often at close to or above pre-pandemic levels. That is rare in the context of wider measures of mobility in the UK. London has and continues to suffer during the pandemic which parks footfall still at half of what it was.

    If parks usage by residents is consistent across regions, why is London lower? The answer may lie in the absence of visitors – commuters and tourists – and migration. If anything close to 50% of parks usage was by visitors of some type, this is significant. Residents and visitors; how places are adapted to their needs defines their success.

    The Covid-19 pandemic is ongoing.

    Shifts in travel, working and living patterns may stay or they may go. Some of how people have learned to adapt to limitations will remain with them. Others will be forgotten. But as we enter yet another phase of this crisis, the effects will continue to evolve and take hold. Who uses parks and green spaces, why, and what they need from them is changing.


    Now is the time to study the trends, make preparations and invest in building great places!

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