The countryside’s ethnic deficit
Several months ago, on Sunday 28th June 2020, the BBC’s Countryfile put out a tweet which trailed a package being broadcast on the show the same day. The tweet was — ostensibly — about the lack of black and minority ethnic (BAME) users of the countryside, and was up hardly any time at all before it attracted a lot of negative attention. In modern parlance, it ratioed. To those unfamiliar with the term, a ratio in twitterspeak is when the amount of ‘Comments’ a tweet receives far outweigh the ‘Likes’ and/or ‘Retweets’, and generally occurs when the subject is controversial or contentious. In this instance the ratio was significant, with 10.4k ‘Comments’ compared to 4.7k ‘Retweets’ and 2.7k ‘Likes’ at the time of writing. Given that BBC Countryfile tweets generally attract only a handful of comments and, perhaps, up to a couple of hundred ‘Likes’, the number of interactions this particular one garnered was remarkable. Some of the replies posted were from the usual headbanging goons that are apt to frequent Twitter and other social media platforms. But many of them were not.
Why did it cause such a fuss?
The terminology used by the BBC, that the countryside was seen as a ‘white environment’, seemed to suggest something beyond the headline. The inference was that white users of the countryside were unwelcoming to BAME people. Some tweeters went further, and thought the implication of the language used hinted at a streak of racism running through them like writing in a stick of rock. Many of the 10,000 respondents to the tweet weren’t enamoured by the idea or suggestion that they were part of this unwelcoming or, worse, racist cohort.
As for the package in the programme itself, it made some controversial claims. The most overt was the one expressed by the excellent presenter Dwayne Fields:
Beth Collier…grew up in the countryside and she believes that racism is still a big part of why people of colour are less present in nature today.
The reason, I believe, why so many people took issue with this phrasing, and the tweet’s wording, is because if racism were one of the main causes of the seeming ethnic disparity among outdoors-goers then the Countryfile piece and associated tweet would have been well judged and welcome. But, according to the actual data, the reasons for the lack of ethnic diversity in the countryside are much more nuanced and, apparently, have virtually nothing to do with race at all.
The package presented by Dwayne Fields in the Countryfile episode drew heavily on a study that was published last year by DEFRA, called Landscapes Review (it’s also called the ‘Glover Report’, after its author Julian Glover). Contained in page 68 of the document is this statement:
The statistics show certain groups especially disconnected. Most visits are made by the same (better off, less diverse) people repeatedly, and those who miss out are the older, the young — especially adolescents — and those from lower socio-economic groups and black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.
The statistics referred to by Glover in the report were not gathered by him, but via a large-scale, multi-year survey for another report by Natural England called: Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment — The national survey on people and the natural environment Headline report 2019. Contained within this headline report are many graphs that show varying levels of participation among different groups. Figure 21 in that study, which shows the frequency of visits to the outdoors by key demographics, is shown below:
There is an obvious large disparity between ethnic groups’ frequency of outdoor use. The white grouping’s weekly (or more) figure is 69%; 28% more than the black group, and fully 31% more than the ethnic Asian group. Why should this be? Well, if we break into the Excel spreadsheet where all the data from the large-scale surveys were dumped (which surprisingly few people appear to have done), we can see an interesting and complex picture.
Firstly (see graph below), of the 47,000 people questioned for the 2019 survey who spent time outdoors and away from the home, the vast majority of black and Asian respondents, 88% and 79% respectively, did so in a town or city (e.g. they exercised in an urban park close to their home). This is compared to only 49% of white respondents. The latter demographic was much more likely to use the countryside (38%) than black and Asian people (11% & 15% respectively).
This big difference in where outdoors activities were carried out became even more acute when respondents were asked what they did outdoors. General walking — including rambling and hill-walking — was done by only 6% of black respondents, and 9% of Asian, compared to a whopping 42% of white respondents.
Taken at face value, these stats might raise the eyebrow of an impartial observer. But if we further drill into the reasons why people from BAME backgrounds aren’t using the countryside in greater numbers, a fascinating picture emerges.
In the chart below, which shows the answers given for people who use the outdoors less than once a month (i.e. infrequent users), the reasons for non-use vary across the ethnic groups, often dramatically.
Of the above statistics these, for me at least, are the most interesting:
- People from an ethnic Asian background are twice as likely (39%) as white people (20%) to be too busy at work to use the outdoors, with the black grouping not far behind at 33%. In other words, white people would appear to have much more leisure time at their disposal.
- Lack of transport is a very small barrier to using the outdoors, with nobody citing lack of public transport across the ethnic groups as a reason for not participating. A similar picture is true for car access (low single-digits percentile).
- Ethnic Asians are much more likely to be restricted by family ties, i.e. too busy at home, (38%) than white people (15%). The difference between the white and Asian grouping here is pronounced (i.e. ethnic Asians are more than twice as likely to be busy at home than white people).
- Perhaps the most striking of all the statistics was the ‘don’t feel welcome/feel out of place’ column. If racism were a decisive factor in deterring people from using the outdoors then we might reasonably have expected to see this figure at quite high levels. But apparently that is just not the case. Zero percent of black people said that this was an issue for them not using the outdoors, and just 2% for Asian respondents. (Any number above zero in this category is unwelcome, but it is a very small percentage in the broader context. In addition, the survey somewhat unhelpfully doesn’t say why they felt unwelcome or out of place, so it could be anything.)
- Black respondents were almost twice as likely to not (be) interested in the outdoors (12%) as white or ethnic Asians (7% and 6% respectively).
- No particular reason was cited by 28% of black respondents as opposed to 9% and 13% white and ethnic Asians respectively. This is a significant difference and worthy of further investigation by the surveyors.
It is worth pointing out again that zero percent of black respondents in this category thought that they were unwelcome or out of place in the countryside. Considering the survey had data from 5,877 BAME respondents in 2019, this figure will unquestionably come as a surprise to many people. It also flies in the face of one of the central claims made in the Countryfile piece.
The BBC’s tweet and accompanying Countryfile package sought to paint this purely as a racial issue. Unfortunately, it looks like nobody from the programme actually bothered to interrogate the data that informs the studies.
There is widespread use of the outdoors amongst all ethnic categories. It just so happens, though, that black and ethnic Asian people are more likely to use outdoor spaces that are closer to their homes, doubtlessly because of expediency.
Of course racism exists in outdoors-Britain just as it does in urban-Britain. No sensible person would deny this. According to the figures, however, perceived or actual racism is responsible for only a tiny percentage of people not using the countryside.
Finally, on page 70 of the Glover Report, the author states that:
The countryside is seen by both black, Asian and minority ethnic groups and white people as very much a ‘white’ environment.
This is clearly the statement that the BBC adapted for their tweet which was used to promote the piece in the Countryfile package. I believe it is an unhelpful and misleading statement in general terms. The large-scale survey work that was done for the Natural England report suggests that it is not an unwelcoming ‘white environment’ that is a barrier to BAME people accessing the outdoors, but — rather — a more complex set of reasons such as family ties, work commitments, socio-cultural, and financial issues. These, and not racism, seem to be the biggest factors in a lack of countryside participation. We must also allow for the perhaps uncomfortable fact that there may be sections of society uninterested in visiting a national park or climbing a hill, no matter how inclusive they are made.