It is well documented that nature and green spaces have the potential to improve people’s health and well-being [1
]). Given growing urbanisation, a large proportion of the research has focused on urban parks and woodlands [9
], and explored the relationships between ‘neighbourhood exposure’ and health outcomes ranging from mortality to momentary well-being [10
]. Neighbourhood exposure has been operationalised variously as the quantity of green space in an individual’s neighbourhood, distances from home to key sites, and general accessibility. Blue spaces have been found to be highly preferred natural settings compared to other urban nature types [19
] and there is growing awareness that aquatic or ‘blue spaces’ such as rivers, lakes or the seaside may offer alternative, complementary locations for these relationships [15
], and this is the focus for the research approach described in this paper.
The quality, as well as quantity and proximity, of green and blue spaces is also important for health and wellbeing [23
], as well as being a key predictor of their use and enjoyment [24
]. Research investigating outdoor environments for activities and place assessment for public space improvements for community benefits has focused on aspects such as the presence of facilities (e.g., paths, benches, attractive vegetation) [23
], and the absence of signs of negative behaviour (e.g., litter, vandalism, dog fouling or broken bottles) [8
]. These studies showed that there are some basic factors affecting how much people use spaces and the kind of activities they do in them which help to improve physical activity levels (such as by walking, dog walking, jogging or cycling) or for mental health (de-stressing, reducing depression). However, despite this progress, there has been limited research into how specific design interventions to promote greater access to natural environment and place usage may contribute to making a difference in levels of physical activity [38
], positive effects on health, social and environmental outcomes [43
] and may prove beneficial for areas of relative deprivation [21
]. There is limited research to draw upon and very few studies have assessed the well-being benefits of blue or green space interventions.
In one such study, the concept of “urban acupuncture” [45
] was used to test before-and-after effects in Tallinn, Estonia [49
]. The research suggested that a simple, small-scale design intervention had a significant positive impact on levels of use of an informal abandoned fishing harbour through behaviour observation techniques, although limited links between the activity and health and well-being could be made. With increasing interest in evidence-based design among practicing landscape architects [50
], the lack of research on the impact of specific design solutions may lead to sub-optimal results and a failure to maximise the social return on investment.
The current paper presents a small part of the BlueHealth project, funded through the European Commission Horizon2020 research framework, which focuses on strengthening the evidence base surrounding the potential health and well-being benefits of urban blue spaces (such as docks, rivers, harbours, coastal areas, lakes, canals and water features). The research project as a whole includes a major element of experimental testing of “urban acupuncture” [49
] interventions added to a variety of blue spaces located in several cities in Europe, with the objective of identifying the extent to which they attract more people to the space and their degree of impact on the health and well-being of local users. The urban acupuncture theory proposes that a small intervention can potentially have an effect out of all proportion to the investment. Essentially, it is a concept based on both the size/scale of the intervention, and also its cost, as the two frequently go hand-in-hand. Thus, these are small and inexpensive interventions which solve a specific, possibly locally acute, spatial/functional problem (such as a pressure point—hence the metaphor of acupuncture) cost-effectively, rather than a large and complete redevelopment which also costs a lot. What exactly the type of intervention could be is very context dependent and needs clear analysis before carrying out the intervention (such as applying detailed site analysis and public participation). While the problem may be local, the solution may have wider impact.
The current paper focuses on just one of these interventions, as an exemplar of the work carried out across the whole project. The case study is a landscape design intervention in a small run-down urban beach park in a relatively deprived part of the port city of Plymouth, Devon in the UK. The paper describes a brief ‘protocol’ of this particular intervention, the methods used to evaluate the intervention, and illustrates potential outputs from these methods. In so doing, it presents a case for triangulating methods when designing evaluations of comparable interventions, and provides guidance for researchers wishing to conduct similar evaluations. The results of the intervention itself will be presented in future research articles (so we cannot present sample results here, due to the academic constraints of not publishing data more than once) and because of this publication strategy it would not be easy to understand how each set of results fits into the whole. Therefore, the aim is to present the methodology as a whole so as to act as a) a reference framework for the results of all the projects which will be reported separately and b) a useful reference for other researchers wishing to carry out such complex projects and where a comprehensive presentation of the strategy and methodology is unavailable. We offer this protocol for reference, for critique and for inspiration to those following us.
1.2. Conceptual Framework
The research strategy presented here forms a comprehensive, interdisciplinary and multi-method approach which has been applied in various equivalent versions in several other locations across Europe as part of the BlueHealth project. It addresses that part of the project which is concerned with planning and design for blue space (Figure 1
). Note the central importance given to planning, infrastructure, quantity of, and distance to, blue space, the attributes of blue space and the means of contact and activities which potentially affect the impacts on health.
The research questions applied to each project are:
To what extent does the renovation of a blue space, by adding a small-scale physical intervention and associated public engagement, attract more people: a) to the site; b) to the water?
How might changes to the blue space (or changes in visit characteristics) have a positive impact on community-level health and well-being?
What are the social and economic values of the intervention?
The main theoretical framework adopted for the research approach is built on affordance theory. Environmental affordances are perceived properties of a place which might influence behaviour [51
]. For example, a physical element such as a ledge may be a functional signifier for designed or spontaneous activities (sitting, skateboarding), highlighting the importance of understanding the physical environment [52
]. Affordance as a concept and affordance’s role in designing different physical environments has been amply demonstrated, for example in studies of children’s activity in different play settings [50
]. Understanding people’s behaviour in outdoor public spaces can provide convincing evidence for urban planning and design, aiming to promote more activity. In the case of blue space, for example, wider views of waterbodies with spacious and natural characteristics, the presence of bank vegetation, a moist atmosphere, rich and diverse wildlife, and non-visual sensory stimulation (e.g., gently lapping waves) may all afford positive perceptions and create fascination, which in turn encourages people to visit the site [9