Rwanda in Sheffield: the global/local distinctiveness of greenspace

by Clare Rishbeth

This article focuses on the perception and use of public open space by refugees recently arrived in the UK. In particular, it follows the experience of a research project in 2004 which combined a photographic training course for refugee participants with visits to open spaces in Sheffield. Research activity focused on the on-site experience and photographic reflection of the group, aiming to understand personal reactions to nature, recreation and urban greenspace.

Understanding place

Our experience of outdoor place is fundamentally connected with our experience of life. Our perceptions are strongly associative, linking physical presence and sensory information with a complex web of narrative and anticipation. You may expect a woodland visit to fulfil a personal fascination in nature, provide sanctuary from a chaotic home life, present a challenging cycling course or embody a deep-seated fear of attack. You may expect all these things simultaneously.

In exploring or inhabiting a place we are aware of how it meets our expectations and fulfils our needs. Expectations may be formed from previous experiences of this place, from prior information, or more generally constructed from memories of other places we know. Our needs can differ depending on our situation regarding physical ability, responsibilities and constraints; and our immediate requirement for activity or rest, a sociable or a solitary time. How we might assess this when encountering somewhere can be defined as the legibility of a place. Kaplan (1998) identifies this characteristic as distinctiveness, that a place provides memorable orientation. High legibility can also be defined as being easy to interpret, whether regarding activities and routes on offer or aspects of safety and physical accessibility.

Of course, it can be possible to ‘understand’ a place, but not appreciate it. Studies in landscape preference look at how places can be more satisfying for one group of people than another, or, indeed, satisfying to no-one. (See Porteous (1996) for an overview of this field.) Particularly in the area of environmental psychology, many studies (some contradictory) have looked at how a person’s background, age, gender or ethnic identity may dispose them to prefer one type of environment over another. These generalisations can be helpful in contesting a one-dimensional evaluative approach to ‘landscape quality’, but can also be simplistic in their characterisation of people groups and often abstracted quantitative methodologies.

Place, culture and identity

To elaborate on the sub-title of this book; experience of ‘place’ is mediated through the lens of an individual’s ‘culture’ and ‘identity’ . The term ‘place attachment’ (Altman and Low, 1992) was coined to describe a situation where a person’s culture and personal identity are strongly associated with a place. This is typically embodied when individuals have a long term engagement with a specific place, for example in agrarian societies, or in close knit neighbourhoods where residence spans generations. Landscapes important at childhood are also often seem as strong in emotional connections to a person’s sense of identity and rootedness. (Altman and Low, 1992, Tuan, 1974).

Though this experience may well resonate with many individuals, the discourse could be constructed as prioritising an insular, insider positioning as preferable for environmental concern and engagement with locality. It stresses long term connections between places and culture, without necessarily acknowledging the changing qualities of these. It also could be used to suggest that long term residents have ‘more important’ views with regard to places of habitation than more recent arrivals.

Multicultural cities

Equating attachment with belonging and familiarity is problematic in many contexts, but particularly in urban centres such as Sheffield, characterised by mobile, transnational populations. In her book Cosmopolis II: mongrel cities Sandercock (2003) asserts that for cities are to be dynamic and accepting to diversity they must welcome change rather than attempt to protect themselves from it. This is not an indictment of a sense of tradition, but encourages explorations of what ‘heritage’ could encompass, especially with regard to social histories. It does not deny a sense of territory or belonging, but is open to new senses of ownership which are not necessarily related to longevity or knowledge. It seeks new attachments and re-interpretations of place.

In order to rise to this challenge, it is important to address more nuanced and complex understandings of attachment and familiarity in landscapes, specifically with relation to people who have migrated between different countries and cultures. Though migration patterns are constantly shifting, this is most clearly identified in Britain as migrants from the Indian sub-continent, the Caribbean, Africa and South East Asia. What new layers of attachments and readings of landscape may be added to our cultural understanding of place? Research that focuses on migration histories in relationship to landscape experience is still in its infancy, but growing both in depth and importance as city life and form adapts to increasing multi-national populations.

Refugees and urban greenspace

This research, the Viewfinder project, addressed perceptions and use of urban greenspace in Sheffield by a group of refugee participants. The stories and experiences of this group are important for two key reasons.

The first is related to social justice and the ability for all members of society to fully participate in its benefits. Most research undertaken regarding refugees and asylum seekers focuses on basic rights, legalities and on experiences of migration, with wider quality of life issues receiving little attention (Stewart, 2004). Though this is understandable, it negates the environmental context of the trauma of displacement, and the potential for coping mechanisms which relate to orientation and recreation. By exploring how urban greenspaces may be accessed and enjoyed by these populations, the focus is shifted from disenfranchisement to restorative experiences and opportunities for integration. The benefit of using urban greenspace can be understood as both physical (providing opportunities for both gentle and energetic exercise) and psychological (reducing stress by providing places of escape and play) (Kaplan et al, 1998, ODPM, 2002). However, it is crucial to identify and address motivations and barriers to use of open space by this (potential/existing) user group.

The second regards a theoretical understanding of memory and landscape preference, and a human ability to interpret new places in the light of past experiences. Existing research contributes erratically to this theme, touching on the role of the physical environment in culture shock (Churchman and Mitrani, 1997), adjustments of leisure patterns (Tirone and Shaw,1997, Stodolska, 1998) and the importance of objects and homemaking in adjusting and making links with the new culture (Bir, 1992). Boym, in her book ‘The future of nostalgia’ looks at how nostalgia can be experienced differentently, shaped by personal responses to change. She idenitifies one form as ‘restorative nostalgia’: nostalgia that seeks to re-create the past and gives priority to a collective immigrant identity. The other is defined as ‘reflective nostalgia’. Here the greater focus is on an individual narrative, which savours details and memorial signs but calls into doubt an absolute truth of identity. Examples of reflective nostalgia being actively triggered by views and experiences of outdoor landscapes are anecdotally described in a number of studies across a range of different landscape types (Rishbeth, 2004, Burgess et al, 1988, Wong,1996). In her study of Asian women living in London, Tolia-Kelly (2004) demonstrated the range and depth of landscape connections shaped by personal geographies and narratives.

By focusing on refugees and asylum seekers, the Viewfinder project addresses experiences of people who have arrived relatively recently in the UK, who have complex and problematic narratives relating to their home country, and experience of significant exculsion (economic, social and lingistic) from most other recreational opportunities in the city. This paper gives voice to their view of Sheffield: the city environment and, specifically, a diverse range of greenspaces. In examining this, we can catch glimpses into an ‘outsider view’ of these places, and question the meaning of local distinctiveness.

The Project

The Viewfinder project aimed to pilot an innovative methodology that would be responsive to the complex nature of landscape perception and use, and would allow researchers to work sensitively with a participant group of refugees and asylum seekers. It was important to us that the research should be:

  • Experiential. We wanted participants to relate to the multi-sensory and immediate impact of being physically located in place.
  • Accessible. Participants needed to be given the tools for open communication within the project and to contribute to the dissemination of research findings.
  • Mutually beneficial. Taking part in the project should not only be fun, but also have tangible benefit for our participants.


Viewfinder developed a methodology that combined an accredited basic photographic course with a qualitative research project. During the three month period, the group met weekly to visit public open spaces in Sheffield, including heritage and neighbourhood parks, public gardens, semi-natural woodlands and common grounds, park festivals and the city farm. Exploring these places as a group gave us the chance to share in participants’ first reactions to the sites. Taking photos and subsequent discussion of these formed the main vehicle for research enquiry. Participants also developed a portfolio of work which was submitted for an Open College Network qualification.

Taking pictures.

The research was a collaborative project between the Department of Landscape at the University of Sheffield and Positive Negatives, a community based media group with particular expertise in working with people from ethnic community backgrounds. Clare Rishbeth and Nissa Finney, the two academic researchers working on the project, had backgrounds in Landscape Architecture practice / research and social geography respectively. We facilitated the visits and discussion aspect of the project, whereas Positive Negatives had full responsibility for providing the photographic training. The project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, with support in kind by the Refugee Housing Association in Sheffield.

We used a wide range of photo-elicitation techniques, including individual and group discussion, craft work and photo-journaling to deepen our understandings of the group’s experiences. The project culminated in an exhibition of participants’ photographs and research themes displayed at the Showroom Cinema and the Refugee Housing Association, both in the centre of Sheffield.


There were six participants, originally from Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Liberia, Somalia and Afghanistan. They were aged between 19 and 45, one female and five males. All but one were separated from all members of their families and lived alone. Some had right of permanent residence (refugee status), others had been granted leave to remain for a set period of time, and one was appealing a refusal of his asylum application. Their ability in spoken English varied, from very basic to fluent.

Lamin on his home street in Sheffield.

The participants’ history of migration and their current status as refugees defined their attitude to public open space and the city in complex ways, some of which will be explored in the discussion later. All had arrived in Sheffield between 6 months and 2 ½ years prior to the start of the project, many via other UK cities (London, Middlesbrough) or other countries (Russia, Sierra Leone, Lebanon). Though most seemed to consider Sheffield to be their ‘stopping place’, this may not be within their own control, and both their immediate and long term future locations were uncertain. This pattern of disruption, and diminished individual choices regarding settlement and housing, seems to create a context which is fearful of risk, therefore reducing confidence in taking individual initiatives. This can affect patterns of exploration and openness to new opportunities within a city context. Within the Viewfinder project we noticed that participants were generally reluctant to make choices on behalf of the group, and often needed encouragement to express personal opinions, especially negative ones.

The life situation of the participants was significant with regard to their previous experience and expectations of public open space. Participants had grown-up in both rural and urban settings. Those who had been primarily city based had experience of visiting the countryside through extended visits to relatives. Formal city parks were not familiar to some of our participants, and were generally only encountered in large African cities. The state of ongoing conflict in Afghanistan meant that the two Afghani participants had grown-up with highly restricted access to outdoor environments both urban and rural. Due to the traumatic circumstances by which the participants had left their homeland, and the complexity and personally painful aspects of remembering their home, we were tentative in our discussion of home with the participants. However, conversations about comparisons and reflections of home landscapes arose naturally during the course of the project, especially prompted by landscape experiences, and proved invaluable insights into the nature of landscape memory.

Encountering place

The city

The participants generally lived in basic accommodation in or near the city centre, and their on-going experience of Sheffield was predominantly defined by routes from their housing area to and around the city centre. Their spheres of contact were almost entirely limited to the refugee sector (service providers and refugees) and they seemed to have restricted friendship circles even within this context. Activities that took them out of the house included English lessons, shopping, job seeking, religious worship, and appointments regarding their refugee status and housing provision. In conversation, they would often describe themselves as busy and found juggling these activities stressful at times.

In parallel to this dialogue of stress they also often talked about boredom and the lack of fun and opportunity in their lives. A few had developed some leisure interests, such as boxing, football and going to the library to read the news. However, these tended to be exceptions within an otherwise restricted routine. They were acutely aware of the dispiriting nature of their lives, and looked forward to the weekly Viewfinder sessions as a contrast to their more mundane activities. Though attendance rates varied among participants, all six did complete the course and contributed to the final exhibition. We suggest this was mainly due to the enjoyment and relaxing nature of the site visits, combined with the social context of being part of a small and friendly group.

Abdul between home and city centre.

The participants’ understanding of Sheffield as a place was very much defined by a city centre limited radius, and most of them had little motivation to explore beyond this area. When they were first shown pictures of Sheffield’s parks and gardens we found that almost all of these places were unknown to them; only the peace gardens and winter gardens in the city centre were identified from previous visits. This lack of orientation of the city or experience of visiting parks in their locality meant that most of our visits were ‘first impressions’. One knew of Norfolk Park since it was a short walk from her flat, but had never had the courage to visit, and was keen to go as a group to see what it was like. The only participant who seemed to be a regular park user was an Afgani male who played football informally in a range of parks at weekends. Five of the participants had never visited the countryside around Sheffield and were surprised by photos showing how close it was. The other had made a few trips to the Peak District with a group that arranges outings for refugees.

In talking with participants, they generally had a positive impression of Sheffield, comparing it favourably with other UK cities that they had experience of, mainly because they felt it was a friendly place. Visiting these greenspaces was a new experience for the participants, and they seemed generally surprised that these places existed reasonably close to where they lived. Being able to travel round, visiting unfamiliar areas and getting a wider overall impression of the city was an important part of the Viewfinder project for the participants, and they seemed to appreciate the chance to have some level of guiding and orientation of the city as a whole. Due to Sheffield’s hilly topography many of our visits provided good views over the cityscape. Participants were intrigued by these and enjoyed finding familiar landmarks and seeing the extent of the residential areas.

The park

The group visited one of the oldest parks in the city, Norfolk Heritage Park, as well as one of the newest, Millennium Park in Heeley.

Norfolk Heritage Park is a large Victorian park, characterised by a hillside location, large sweeps of mown grass, mature woodland, and recently developed facilities including an extensive playground and a community focused park centre. It is a highly managed historic landscape, which in recent years has received significant funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Despite the extent of the park, welcome signs, clear paths and open views make it relatively easy for first time visitors to navigate.

The white horse at Heeley Millennium Park.

Heeley Millennium Park is smaller, but also affords excellent views over Sheffield and has a range of unusual features, often created in collaboration with local artists. The park was designed and built in the late nineties as a community response to proposals to use the site for road building, and is maintained by the same community development organisation. One of the aims was to encourage diverse activities in the park; it has a small but well equipped playground, willow weaving dens and a climbing boulder as well as hosting a range of community events throughout the year. The site has complex landform, including a prominent hill which features a concreted ‘white horse’ cut into the slope. Planting is a mix of native species structural planting and shrub borders which provide a floral display.

Group with a totum pole at Norfolk Heritage Park.

Though we conceived that the group would decide their own activities and exploration, participants seemed unwilling to initiate their own routes. We generally orchestrated the visits and encouraged participants to try different activities, such as the climbing boulder and playing on the play equipment. We were conceived in the role as interpreters of these landscapes in terms of giving a short introduction to each park, and answering questions during the visit regarding what you could or could not do, about Sheffield and issues of ownership and orientation. Visiting in a group with local people gave the participants a sense of security.

There were many detailed aspects of the parks which were novel for the participants. Some of these would be considered unusual by most park visitors: the white horse, the climbing boulder and the community arts totem pole. Others were items generally seen as normal within these contexts: play equipment, bird boxes, historic features. The unexpected nature of these items was an intriguing and humorous surprise for the participants, but their existence also related to the on-going cultural puzzle of understanding the nature of British society. A society which provides homes for birds, that has designed complex structures for children to play on and which places unusual items in public places for no functional reason may seem very distant from a homeland defined by survival needs and conflict. Equally, it may also seem distant from their own experience of Britain in very basic accommodation and run-down neighbourhood spaces. Though only a mile or two from where they now live, these places were set apart from their usual experiences of Sheffield.

Zimbabwean dancers at the Sharrow festival.

Though this novelty was an attractive aspect of the parks for the participants, it also seemed to be a disorientating experience, one which they had little practice of negotiating on their own. In discussions they seemed unclear as to what you ‘do’ in parks, and in this sense the staged nature of our visits, and the organised activity of taking photographs, did not equip them to make independent return visits. In talking about their leisure activities in their home countries, it was clear that the social context for recreation was vital, and in Sheffield they simply lacked an easy network of family and friends for making a visit. They did not want to visit alone, yet organising a group outing demanded a high level of organisation and shared sense of confidence.

We also took the opportunity of visiting two festivals held in Sheffield parks in 2004: a refugee week festival in Hillsborough park (where some information and photographs were on display about the Viewfinder Project) and ‘Peace in the Park’ in Endcliffe Park. One participant also visited Sharrow festival on his own initiative, and took photos of Zimbabwean dancers as part of his photo-journal. These visits were very popular with the group, as they provided a range of engaging events. Whether visiting alone or in a group, the complexity and activity of a festival means that they are more easily absorbed into a crowd, diminishing a general worry about sticking out. Festivals often have a strong multi-cultural emphasis; participants enjoyed the colour and vigour of the international performances and seemed to acknowledge the importance of this representation.

The garden

Gardens are here defined as public gardens with a strong horticultural emphasis. During the Viewfinder project we visited the Peace Gardens and the Winter Gardens in the city centre, the Botanical Gardens about a mile to the west, and a city farm allotment in the residential area of Heeley. All these places are free access.

The Peace Gardens are adjacent to the city hall, and this central location meant that it was already familiar to the participants. It was re-designed in 1998, and is popular among Sheffielders for its large play fountain, interesting planting, and relaxing benches and lawns for seating.

The Winter Gardens.

The Winter Gardens is a large glass house in a contemporary style, it was opened in 2002 and features temperate and tropical planting. It was commissioned as part of the ‘Heart of the City’ project, and links the Peace Gardens and a city square with the new Millennium Galleries.

The Sheffield Botanical Gardens are an important historic open space in Sheffield, designed by Robert Marnock and opened in 1836. The 19 acre site is a hillside park-like landscape with a wide range of mature trees, herbaceous borders and more intimate specialist character areas. Recent Heritage Lottery Funding has allowed the Victorian glasshouses to be restored, and these showcase a wide range of plant habitats from different continents.

In addition, we visited the city farm in Heeley. Though very different from a public garden in many respects, the farm includes a large allotment and plant nursery area which was of specific interest to the participants.

The gardens were the most popular places among the participants, as they embodied the beauty and well-appointed qualities of public provision in the UK, combined with an easily accessible and legible landscape. The high level of maintenance and supervision made them feel secure, and the clearly defined paths meant they felt it was very easy to explore. The gardens were generally on a smaller scale than the parks; this seemed less daunting to them, and implied an emphasis on rest rather than movement.

These places embodied much that the group thought positive about public greenspace. They had a strong appreciation and interest in the horticultural aspect of the gardens, describing them as beautiful and talking about bringing other people with them to enjoy the plants. The gardens seemed to be more easily conceptualised as social gathering areas compared to the parks. Partly this was due to their location; in particular the city centre gardens were known to the participants and they felt that they could just drop in if they wanted to relax. Some felt that they could also go and meet new people there “That’s the real reason really I want to visit… to meet new people, meet new friends you know” (Lamin, m, Liberia). They noted that there were many places for ‘relaxing and sitting’ and the presence of the garden wardens helped them see these as safe places.

Firmina at the Winter Gardens.

The Botanical and Winter Gardens and the farm allotment also offered them unusual opportunities of seeing plants from their home countries and this delighted and intrigued them. In the allotment recognition prompted consideration of the health of the apple trees and gooseberry plants and an animated conversation about plant cultivation in different countries. When we visited the Botanical Gardens participants recognised, named and told stories about many of the plants in the glasshouses, including childhood play and culinary uses. The plant collections brought out a complex mix of pleasure, sadness and pride.

” I don’t know how I can explain but I feel very, the smell is very nice… this one remind me of my country… it’s good, very nice”. Fimina, f, Rwanda.

“I would like to go and see [the Botanical Gardens] a second time again you know, mostly to see African plant… I can feel proud of it because I am African. If you go to Africa and see European flower, you feel proud just like that”. Lamin, m, Liberia.

The woodland

To the west of Sheffield lies the ‘dark peak’ area of the Peak District, characterised by millstone grit, cliff-like ‘edges’ popular with climbers, heathland and emergent birch woodland. Five rivers drop sharply into the city through steep sided valleys; lush retreats from the Victorian terrace residential areas located on the higher ground. From the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries these formed the industrial heart of Sheffield, with scores of waterwheels to power the cutlery grinding mills. This industrial heritage is still apparent through remnants of stonework and the complex water-engineering of races and dams, though the valleys are now densely wooded and primarily of recreational and nature conservation importance. This distinctive landscape is highly popular with all ages for active and passive recreation: jogging, cycling, dog walking, play and fishing.

Lamin walking over tree trunks like he used to do on his grandfather’s farm.

In addressing green spaces in Sheffield it was important to include visits to these urban fringe locations, our criteria being that they existed within the city boundary and were accessible by public transport. We chose an evocative stretch of the Rivelin Valley, one which was unusual to explore due to complex waterways, varied woodlands and many historic features such as dams, bridges and stepping stones.

In contrast we also visited the upland landscape of Loxely Common. Parts of the edge were formerly quarried, and the area is now a patchwork of heathland, birch and oak woodland and rocky outcrops, with fine views out to the Peaks. Though both of these places are within the jurisdiction of the city council, and receive low levels of management, they offered the group a much wilder and natural aspect of open space compared to our visits to parks and gardens.

These sites invite interaction, and in many ways our group was highly active during the visits. They seemed more relaxed than on other visits, even to the gardens, and engaged in play-like activities, such as climbing on rocks, negotiating stepping stones and investigating the dams, as well as taking photos of aspects they conceived as particularly interesting or beautiful. In the Rivelin valley the river was the primary source of delight, though participants were also attentive to the detail of the wild flowers and stonework. The valley was not busy on an overcast Thursday afternoon and the density and complexity of the woodland gave our group a certain privacy. This provided a chance to walk and talk in a place seemingly removed from the public sphere, which gave a group such as ours a certain autonomy and freedom of expression and exploration.

Walking in the Rivelin Valley.

“Rivelin valley! I really liked it. Especially summer time, it’s very, very relaxing, walking with people, talking each other, you’re private like that you know, it’s really nice” Fimina, f, Rwanda.

However, the privacy and accompanying freedom was a double edged aspect of these sites. In common with most members of the public, participants judged these to be good places to visit in a group, but ones that were problematic in terms of safety and legibility. It was remarked that you see crimes happen on TV in woodland such as this; that it was possible to disappear and no-one would know where you were. In our visits, the group was protected from this not only by numbers but by the role of the researchers who acted as guides in navigating and also in interpreting the site and normal use. Not only did participants voice fears about their personal safety, but were also concerned about perceptions of their own behaviour, either in terms of being seen as ‘normal’, or about unwittingly breaking a law.

“I’m always willing to go there… but I can’t go there on my own because you need somebody to talk to really in this kind of place. Even if you have a pet it will look better, you know when you are alone somebody will look, you fool, you crazy”. (Lamin, m, Liberia)

Land demarcation.

The group described these two sites as countryside, and highlighted disparities between experiences of countryside in their home countries1 and in these places. In their home countries the countryside was owned, never in public ownership like Loxely Common or the Rivelin Valley. People living in towns and cities usually encountered the countryside as extended visits to relatives, including helping out with agricultural tasks. This provided both a semi-insider understanding of the landscape, and a clear social context for activities, work or recreation. It also denoted the countryside as somewhere very different and distant. In Sheffield, they perceived these places as being remote from the city centre and difficult to find despite being given local transport information. The idea of going to the countryside without visiting someone was alien to the participants, and encompassed worries about sticking out and not being able to interpret land ownership.

“Sometimes I wouldn’t know that land demarcation line, sometimes maybe I will just jump into the farm where I’m not supposed to go. Something else will happen to me so I would not like to go there”. Lamin, m, Liberia.

Firmina at Loxely Common.

One participant in particular, despite having right to permanent residence, voiced concern that he could be deported if he committed a crime. Refugees and asylum seekers are not only less familiar with nuances of territory and acceptability in ambiguous environments such as urban fringe countryside, but the penalties of mis-interpretation are greater. Their history of migration and unfamiliarity of cultural and social clues added to their worries about their legal status and created multiple layers of risk connected with ambiguous wild-like environments. Therefore, though they seemed to have very enjoyable experiences of these places, the highly legible and accessible garden locations were more preferred as return locations.

Despite these structural and social differences, these places were rich in associations for the participants, and prompted thoughtful reflections on landscape character and local identity. Landscape features and activities reminded participants of home and triggered stories of times with families, socialising with friends or adventurous play as children.

The landscape character itself was interpreted as familiar by some of the participants. The combination of rocks and birch trees on Loxely Common provoked a strong response in some of the African participants, and particularly Firmina, a Rwandan woman. Though almost certainly different from an ecological or horticultural standpoint, she identified this place as being ‘just like Rwanda’ and said that she “didn’t think I could found a place like this in this country”. The spatial character, the experience of sitting on rocks and the cultural associations were clearly familiar to her, and were expressed as sheer delight that she had found this reminder of her homeland.

Memory and association in landscape experience

In the parks and green spaces of Sheffield, the group explored places that they didn’t even know existed, in a city mostly unfamiliar to them. Recently arrived in this country, the social and cultural norms of western European city life were still aspects that could bewilder and disorientate. The day to day reality of being newcomers, newcomers comprehensively marginalised by economic, social, linguistic and legal factors, is one that requires near constant adjustment and improvisation.

In navigating these new environments, what role does memory play? What is important to individuals about the similarities and differences between Sheffield and Rwanda, Somalia or Afghanistan? What are the resonances, and do they affect any individual transformation in experience or expectation?

For those of us who grew up and now live as adults in the same location, or at least the same country, our rural and urban environments provide tangible reminders of the essence of holidays, school times and local neighbourhoods. Specific places may offer the strongest reminder, but similarities in landscape type and urban fabric do not pose a difficult imaginative leap to recollect past experiences.

It appears surprising, given the geological, ecological and cultural differences, the ease in which the participants were prompted by the sites to voice narratives and connections to their home country life? However, it’s possible we all ‘see’ new landscapes in the light of that which we know, whether on holiday or through migration, whether merely a different county or a different continent. Our experience of place and conception of this is strongly associative, and can relate to spatial qualities, multi-sensory triggers or similarities in activities. Through our personal world-views, not only can Pembrokeshire be like Cornwall, but also Chile can be like Norway, and even Rwanda like Yorkshire.

Refugees and reflective nostalgia

In what way can recognising these associations aid the participants, and more broadly refugees and asylum seekers, in adjustment to life in an otherwise unfamiliar country? Through their experiences of parks, gardens and woodland, and the reflections around these visits, we identified three ways in which the nostalgic dynamic had a positive role in the interplay of place, culture and identity. This nostalgia can be identified as Boym’s ‘reflective nostalgia’; memories and interpretations of the past which are engaged with creatively with respect to shaping the present.

Unlocking expert knowledge

Firstly, in recollecting specific information, it placed the participants in the unusual position of being experts. This was most clearly the case in the world-plant collections, when they were able to ‘teach’ the rest of the group.

“The Botanic Gardens was great especially the Greenhouse where we saw plants from the different places we came from: every student on that course said ‘oh yeah, I know this from my country’… you know, that was pleasing, and to listen to the British people say ‘this is an exotic plant’ and I was saying ‘no, this is indigenous, it grows in the wild!’ you know, that was great.” Tendero, m, Zimbabwe.

The act of telling the researchers about details of their home, not only plant names but agricultural practices, childhood games and environmental change – and these disparate pieces of information being received with attention and interest – was one that was important within the project. It set up a different and useful dynamic, as we introduced participants to the landscapes of Sheffield they in turn introduced us to aspects of their home countries.

It is difficult to know how significant it would be for them to recognise an aspect of personal knowledge or skills in this context without a means of sharing it. In the heightened levels of response to elements of novelty in the greenspaces we can recognise aspects of culture-shock in the participants. Culture shock has the ability to infantilise, to strip a person of their accumulated life skills and wisdom by placing them in an environment in which these seem irrelevant. So it may be inferred that by also triggering specific knowledge and expertise, these places can help migrants recognise their own knowledge base, and for that to occasionally provide some legibility to new environments.

Interpreting belonging and difference

Secondly, place nostalgia gave the participants a different means of conceptualising home. The nostalgia expressed by the participants was generally voiced with enthusiasm, though the traumatic loss of many of their loved ones and exile from homeland gives a darker side to these memories. Sometimes participants struggled to put their emotions into words, but they chose to engage and share these experiences rather than shield themselves from them. The spatial and emotional dislocation from the homeland was bridged in these flashes of recollection, and this appeared to be something that helped give some sense of coherence to the different stages of their life.

The delight that Firmina felt on finding Rwanda in Loxely Common was not simply a matter of recognising a sense of home, it was about linking that recognition with her current life. “I feel like someone who is in Rwanda, you know when I went there… when I want to feel like someone who is in Rwanda I can go there”. Through these landscape connections, their personal narrative can be expressed in more complex ways than either ‘here’ or ‘there’.

Participants also found, particularly in the plants, aspects that resonated with their own migrant identities and experiences of being ‘different’. In seeing a plant that was considered common in his own country, Liberia, but was showcased in a glasshouse in Sheffield, Lamin reflected that when he went home he would also treat this plant as ‘special’. The Winter Gardens and the Botanical Gardens were particularly important in this respect as they demonstrated international inclusion and gave privilege to difference. Though this could be dismissed as simplistic tokenism or imperialistic exoticism, these interpretations were not at all reflected in the research discussions. The participants specifically described these places as welcoming to all people due to the diversity of representation, and perhaps glimpsed in this a city or society that also reflected these values.

Experiences of familiarity

Finally, the engagement of memories gave participants a sense of common human experience. Despite differences in quality of public provision and the mostly unusual visual appearance of landscape character, could there be something fundamentally unifying about the simple experience of ‘being outdoors’? Outdoors offers diverse opportunities for engagement and relaxation. Playing sport is possible, and proved to be something that some of our participants saw as a primary reason for going to parks. Outdoors is somewhere to hang out with friends, to chat with the strange privacy that being in a public place affords. Outdoors can be beautiful – plants, views, the sky – and being in natural environments can stimulate the imagination and lift the spirits. Being outdoors can be fun; even for adults there are opportunities for play, for exploration and amusement.

These general qualities are, of course, culturally loaded in terms of preference and in our assumptions of beauty or sociability. The ‘Outdoors’ can not universally be conceived as a benign place, whether through conflict or extremes of climate or poverty. The forms of activities, the beauty spots, the social expectations and the constraints of weather will be different. However, it can be argued that, across wide ranging cultures and contexts, a positive experience of outdoor space can raise a person’s quality of life. Sheffield’s open spaces are locally distinctive; particular to the geography and social history of the area. Characteristics of these will be novel to many migrants to Britain, but in a contradictory sense, the experience of visiting them may well help people feel at home.

References and further reading

Landscape preference and social value
Altman, I. and Low, S.M. (1992) Place Attachment. New York: Plenum.
Kaplan, R., Kaplan, S. and Ryan, R. (1998) With people in mind: design and management of everyday nature. Washington D.C.: Island Press.
Nasar, J.L. (1988). Environmental Aesthetics: theory, research and applications. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (2002). Green Spaces, Better Places: Final report of the Urban Green Spaces Taskforce. London: ODPM.
Porteous, J. D. (1996). Environmental Aesthetics: ideas, politics and planning. London: Routledge.
Tuan, Yi-Fu (1974) Topophilia : a study of environmental perception, attitudes, and values. London: Englewood Cliffs

Ethnicity and Open Space / Cities
Burgess, J., Harrison, C., & Limb, M. (1988). People, Parks and the Urban Green: A Study of Popular Meaning and Values for Open Spaces in the City. Urban Studies , 25, pp. 455-473.
Loukaitou-Sideris, A. (1995). Urban Form and Social Context: Cultural Differentiation in the Uses of Urban Parks. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 14, 89-102.
Low, S. M., Taplin, D., Scheld, S., & Fisher, T. (2002). Recapturing erased histories: ethnicity, design and cultural representation – a case study of independence national historical park. Journal of Architecture and Planning Research, 19, pp. 282-299.
Morris, N. (2003). Black and Minority Ethnic Groups and Public Open Space: Literature Review. Edinburgh: OPENspace Research Centre.
Rishbeth, C. (2001). Ethnic Minority Groups and the Design of Public Open Space: an inclusive landscape? Landscape Research, 26, pp. 351-366.
Rishbeth, C. (2004) Ethno-cultural Representation in the Urban Landscape. Journal of Urban Design. Vol 9/3, pp 311-333.
Sandercock, L. (2003) Cosmopolis II : mongrel cities of the 21st century, London: Continuum.
Tolia-Kelly, D. (2004) Landscape, race and memory: biographical mapping of the routes of British Asian landscape values, Landscape Research , 29 (3), pp.277 – 292.
Wong J. L. (1996). The Cultural and Social Values of Plants and Landscapes. In J. L. Wong (Ed.), Ethnic Environmental Participation: key articles, volume 2. (pp. 7-13). Llanberis: Black Environment Network.
Zhang, T. W. & Gobster, P. H. (1998). Leisure preferences and open space needs in an urban Chinese American Community. Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 15, pp. 338-355.
Black Environment Network

Migration experiences
Bir, H. (1992). The Meaning of Objects in Environmental Transitions: Experiences of Chinese Students in the United States. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 12, pp. 135-147.
Boym, S. (2001). The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books.
Churchman, A. & Mitrani, M. (1997). The Role of the Physical Environment in Culture Shock. Environment and Behaviour, 29, pp. 64-86.
Stewart, E. (2004). Deficiencies in UK Asylum Data: Practical and Theoretical Challenges. Journal of Refugee Studies, 17, pp. 29-49.
Stodolska, M. (1998). Assimilation and Leisure Constraints: Dynamics of Constraints on leisure in Immigrant Populations. Journal of Leisure Research, 30, pp. 521-551.
Tirone, S. C. & Shaw, S. M. (1997). At the Center of Their Lives: Indo Canadian Women, Their Families and Leisure. Journal of Leisure Research, 29, pp. 225-245.
Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees in the UK.

Visual Methodologies
Banks, M. (2001). Visual Methods in Social Research. London: Sage.
Pink, S. (2001) Doing visual ethnography : images, media and representation in research London: Sage.


All photos were taken by members of the Viewfinder project: Lamin, Firmina, Abdul, Tendero, Mansoor, Mohamed, Nissa and Clare. Please do not use without permission.

  1. This discussion focused on African countries as the two Afghanis did not contribute.