Urban greenspace use: Insights from mobile phone GPS data

A major challenge to understanding how to harness urban greenspace as a tool for improving health and well-being is the lack of data available on how people actually use greenspace. Four years ago I wrote about the launch of a smartphone app to study how green and built spaces affect our wellbeing. Previous papers have revealed the benefits when people are prompted to engage with greenspace, the good things in urban nature and the impact of more biodiverse greenspaces. The app also tracked the user’s time and use of green spaces identified by 945 ‘geofences’ in Sheffield.  The GPS tracking data collected by the app has been analysed to illustrate how city residents use their urban greenspace. A research paper on how to handle such complex data and providing basic data on the trips has been published in Plos One.

To our knowledge, this is the first paper using GPS data to specifically investigate adults’ greenspace-visiting behaviour. So, the paper provides basic information that we’ve had little insight into before. Aspects such as: (1) how long users spend in greenspaces; (2) how far they travel within them; (3) how far from home they travel to visit them; (4) average speeds of users; and (5) types of greenspaces visited. This objective data is also compared to self-report MENE data.

The geofences of green spaces

The app recorded 29,669 trips from 656,000 GPS data points on 888 smartphones. The process of extracting trip-level data from the raw GPS data points was complex and comprised several stages. From dividing GPS points into trips, to interpolation to obtain polylines with vertices corresponding to regular time intervals. The final stages of post-processing involved cropping the starts and ends of journeys to greenspaces, and checking the validity of trips as representations of single, non-vehicular visits to greenspace. Full details are given in the paper.

Heat map of most visited places

Lots of details of the trips are included in the paper, but the key findings were that the median trip length was 190 meters with a median duration of 4 minutes 36 seconds. This reveals the reality of urban engagement with nature for many. On average the user of the app made just over one trip per day to a greenspace, with a weekly total duration of nearly an hour and total distance of around 2.5 km.

These trip statistics were influenced by demographic factors including age (older participants spent more time and covered more distance in greenspaces) and gender (women make more frequent trips to greenspace). Importantly, ethnicity and deprivation also play a role, with ethnic minorities and people from more deprived areas making shorter visits to greenspaces. It should be noted that the difference was 3 minutes to 4.5 minutes. There is a need for equality of access, however there’s a fundamental problem of very little time being spent in greenspaces. When the most common trip to urban greenspace is around 0.004% of a typical day, it changes the conversation around access to nature, it needs to be more equal and higher for all. Recent research shows that people in the UK visit nature less than other countries.

Finally on demographics, time spent outside as a child seemed to positively influence the frequency of trips made as an adult, suggesting that behaviours learnt as a child continue into adult life. Time spent outside in the past year was also significant, with people who have spent more time outside having a 25% faster walking speed!

Four minutes in urban nature

The GPS results were compared to results from the face-to-face MENE survey. For types of green spaces, the MENE category “park in a town or city” comprises 53% of visits to greenspaces within towns and cities. This was very similar to the 50% of trips from the app data. Parks, both local and large, were found to be particularly popular destinations for greenspace visits given that only 15% of the geofenced greenspaces that were parks. However, 3% of MENE trips were to “woodland or forest”, compared to 13% from the app, showing how self-report can underestimate some everyday exposure to nature.

Our results suggest that most day-to-day greenspace trips are brief and incidental, i.e. travelling through rather than to greenspace. This reveals an important reality of people’s everyday engagement with nature. The results also confirm the importance of including social and cultural factors when investigating who uses and who benefits from urban greenspace. Of course, regular readers of this blog, will know a key theme is engagement with nature, moving beyond visits and thinking about ‘moments not minutes’.

In a recent study people asked to “tap into their sense of wonder” on a 15 minute walk in nature found greater benefit than those that just walked in nature. Also, we’ve found that a person’s relationship with nature explains the benefits of greenspace over and above visits and time. However, there’s an interaction between the two, connection is built on moments  and time in greenspaces. So, while the data on trips matters, the engagement during the visit is key. As is the reality of everyday time in nature revealed in this latest research. There’s a need to consider how to turn brief incidental trips to and through urban greenspaces into everyday moments of wonder. Imaginative design and awareness of the role of nature in keeping well can do this – and those wonderful places would attract longer visits too.


Mears, M., Brindley, P., Barrows, P., Richardson, M., & Maheswaran, R. (2021). Mapping urban greenspace use from mobile phone GPS data. PloS one16(7), e0248622.


About Miles

Professor of Human Factors & Nature Connectedness - improving connection to (the rest of) nature to unite human & nature’s wellbeing.
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