“Plants, agriculture and food have migrated just like everyone else”: the importance of green space in the resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers

| 1 response | Posted by: Dr Suzy Solley | Theme: Health & Wellbeing, Places, Work with Communities

The link between green space and the resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers seems quite abstract, even tenuous. However, as Hannah from Stepney City Farm explains “plants, agriculture and food have migrated just like everyone else”, so perhaps there is more to this than meets the eye.  As part of the team on the #refugeeswelcome in parks research project, I have had the privilege of talking to refugee and asylum seeker organisations, green space organisations and refugees and asylum seekers themselves about green space.

Given the increasing number of refugees and asylum seekers arriving in urban centres, our research investigates the potential parks have to improve the wellbeing of refugees and support integration at the local scale. Our project aims to raise awareness of the potential of spending time in green space as one means of improving mental health and social connections amongst refugees and asylum seekers. It also gives specific attention to addressing the existing barriers in accessing green space.

There are many issues refugees and asylum seekers face including poor living conditions, negotiating complex legal and social care systems, limited social opportunities, language barriers, boredom, underemployment, post-traumatic stress and mental health issues. And people who are seeking asylum have to deal with these issues and the fact that they only have £36.95 a week to live off.

For refugees and asylum seekers parks are important places. Our research highlighted some of the benefits they provide:

  1. A free activity:

A refugee, and interpreter for Refugee Action, told us about the importance of parks for families resettled here: they are very impressed and excited to go parks and it is important for their children.” Considering their financial issues, parks provide a free resource to enjoy walking, spending time with the family and community events. One man from Eritrea told us he regularly travels 90 minutes on a bus to Hyde Park. He feels comfortable there and particularly enjoys going to speaker’s corner and watching all the different people and activities happening there.

  1. A place to relax:

Considering the trauma many refugees and asylum seekers have experienced in their home country, and stress of the resettling here, the space parks allow for people to relax and reflect is important for their mental health. A manager of a refugee centre explains being outside helps people to feel normal again and give people a sense of calm during times of change and unpredictability. A clinical psychologist from a South London therapeutic gardening project told us that many of their service users with PTSD are in need of routine in their lives and gardening gives them that routine.”

  1. A place to meet:

Parks are also spaces where people can integrate with local people and learn more about the local culture and behaviours. As a Syrian refugee explained, “I like to see people happy. I like to talk to people. When we sit in the park we say ‘hello’ to people.”

Despite these benefits, sadly, we’ve also found that there are a number of barriers to preventing refugees and asylum seekers from accessing green space. For example:

  • some felt like ‘outsiders’ and therefore unsafe to go to parks alone
  • some felt that they needed someone to go with someone to the park or have a particular ‘purpose’ for going e.g. to volunteer or to an attend an event
  • some were unware of the facilities, activities and volunteering opportunities parks have to offer
  • some were even unaware of the various different parks in their neighbourhood
  • and for some, mental health issues and unsettling circumstances, deter them from venturing outside

These challenges can, however, be overcome.

For example, if newcomers are shown parks and green space by someone, or invited to the park for a specific reason.

Related to this, we found that staff and volunteers at refugees and asylum seeker based organisations and English teachers are also vital sources of information and support. We have therefore produced an English language resource pack, “Let’s Talk about Parks” with images and activities related to parks and open space to encourage more conversations about, and visits to, parks.

We are launching this and discussing the findings and implications of our research in an event at our offices in Bethnal Green on Tuesday 5th December 2017. 

If you work directly with refugees and asylum seekers or are involved in the planning, design or management of parks or other outdoor public spaces, join us from 12:30 – 14:30, with lunch provided by the Chickpea Sisters, catering company run by refugee and migrant women.

RSVP to hannah.kitcher@youngfoundation.org by Monday 27th November. Please let us know if you have any allergies or specific dietary requirements.

About the project:

‘#refugeeswelcome in parks’ is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and is a follow-on project from ‘The Bench Project’ which explored the importance of benches in public spaces for integration and social inclusion amongst marginalised groups. This research has been conducted in London, Sheffield and in Berlin, and The Young Foundation are working on this project alongside the University of SheffieldUniversity of Manchester and Minor (Berlin).


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One Response

  1. Simon Guillaumé

    Very interesting article and research. I myself worked as an intern for a charity in Paris which offers free french classes to recent arrivals and refugees in the neighbourhood. As the activities officer, parks quickly came to guide my experience and was central to my interactions with our participants. Interestingly, it came to me that most participants knew the parks better than I did. For a lot of them, parks had a personal significance as well as being a clear geographical marker, a place to meet and hang out, for people who lived mostly in crowded temporary accommodations, if they were housed at all.

    Beyond this obvious sense of belonging and sharing with others that comes with the use of public spaces, parks personally resonated with some, mainly those that came from a rural setting. Being thrown in a foreign, dense urban setting is very isolating, and parks acted as a relief from this environment, to a much greater extent than for locals who can be reluctant to use urban green spaces. In some middle eastern cultures for instance, parks are much more integrated to one’s public life and daily routine.

    I ended up learning that the participants we worked with came mostly from a single community. This community was tight-knit from their arrival in Paris. From friends and acquaintances met during their journey, the word spread quickly that the place to go to in Paris was a park in central paris, close to a train station, where members of this community could then help each other and share tips in surviving in this unfamiliar and rough environment. This public space acted for a long time as a de facto community center and still does to this day, were one is very likely to catch a glimpse of a group of migrants working out using the outdoor sports facility at any time. In fact, seeing so many refugees massed in a park was why the founding members of this charity decided to act. The very fact that these migrants were congregating in a public space made it possible to trigger public action. Had they been lodged in suburban detention centers, away from the public eye, public mobilisation would have been much more difficult. Parks therefore act as a key meeting point between the locals and migrant populations, a place to exchange, to help, and a starting point for local action groups.

    When I was in charge of activities, I introduced outdoor conversation workshops, each set in a different park, as a mean to improve their french and geographical knowledge of Paris, which were very well received. We also spent a day in a rural county, during which I probably saw my group as happy as I’d ever seen them.

    To come full circle, the charity’s annual summer party is held in a park and usually attended by more than 200 people, and the charity now has more than 500 participants and 40-50 volunteers with daily classes for all levels, from what started out as 3 people teaching French to a handful of refugees… following a walk in the park.

    I would love to put you in contact with this charity, Français Langue d’Accueil, as I’m sure they would be able to give you their point of view on the significance that green spaces has had on their work and on the wellbeing and life of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees living in Paris.

    Let me know and keep up the good work!