What is tranquillity? New study seeks to define public perceptions of tranquil spaces

26 Jan 2017
Rocky moss covered hill at sunset

An innovative study led by the University of Winchester sets out to define public perceptions of tranquillity to assist local planning authorities and managers of protected areas, such as National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), implement National Planning Policy. ​​

"Most people seek tranquillity when we visit or live in the countryside - but what does it actually mean? The term is highly subjective," says Dr Denise Hewlett, Head of the Tranquillity Research Team, Senior Fellow Knowledge Exchange at the University of Winchester and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. 
"Our study shows that tranquillity means different things to different people and we have designed a method of mapping the diversity of perceptions of what tranquility means for the widest range of society, groups and individuals. Through this study, we can now offer a better understanding of the elements that create a sense of tranquillity for people."  
National UK Planning Policy requires planning authorities to identify and protect areas of tranquillity with local people as part of guidance relating to conserving and enhancing the natural environment, landscapes and wildlife, and ultimately in doing so, contributes to providing positive influences on enhancing people's physical and psychological wellbeing. Yet, tranquillity is also a prime motivator for attracting visitors to the countryside and as such, through identifying and maintaining tranquil spaces, the development and management of tourism in these often environmentally sensitive areas will also be enhanced, which further contributes to supporting rural economies.
The term 'tranquillity' is frequently used in tourism and marketing literature where it is used synonymously with subjective terms like solitude, remoteness, calm, peace and quiet to describe a quality of experience as well as a state of mind that people commonly expect to find in rural areas.
However, what constitutes the special quality of tranquillity is highly subjective and a key challenge for local authorities has been to fully understand what the term means and evaluate the importance it holds for local people. 
The Broadly Engaging with Tranquillity Project ​pilot study focused on the Purbecks in the predominantly rural Dorset AONB which includes part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. The study explores local people's views through focus groups, an extensive household survey and onsite visitor surveys in key tourist locations. Almost 15,000 views were captured from residents, visitors and professionals on what they consider are factors that enhance and detract from a sense of tranquillity. 
The study's findings show that all groups associated tranquil experiences and areas with open spaces, relatively remote or isolated environments and natural features such as woodland and streams. Visual factors are important too: tranquillity is about what people see, as well as what people hear, with sounds such as birdsong considered by people to contribute to a general sense of peace of mind. 
The research also showed that factors considered to primarily detract from a sense of tranquillity are manmade noise, traffic, built-up areas and unsympathetic development, recreational activities along the coastline and large numbers of people. 
However, clear differences were apparent in the views of local people and visitors compared with those of representatives of local government offices and managing agencies for the area. This key distinction presents a challenge for practitioners who need to find a way to reconcile the different views conveyed by local people so that local planning authorities and managers of protected areas can identify and manage tranquil spaces under national planning policy guidelines.
The Dorset AONB team is already using the findings to implement its current management plan objectives for enhancing tranquillity in the area and to inform subsequent plans and policies. 
The study group is now working with a number of local authorities to adapt the approach and methodology for their areas, including other English counties and AONBs including the Howardian Hills in York and the Darent Valley in Kent. Interest has also been shown in the USA via a Fulbright Commission for a trial which is currently being progressed in New Hampshire.  
Dr Hewlett concluded: "Interpreting and understanding highly subjective, individual views about what qualities make the countryside tranquil is very important both in the UK and internationally. Our study shows that it is possible to capture this information and provides a framework for putting it into practice."​
As well as academics and students from the University of Winchester, the project partnership included practitioners from the Dorset AONB and staff at Dorset County Council. The project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
The study is available online in the Journal of Landscape and Urban Planning at the following links:

​Broadly engaging with tranquillity in protected landscapes: A matter of perspective identified in GIS is published in the Journal of Landscape and Urban Planning 158 (2017) 185-201 Elsevier.
Authors: Denise Hewlett (Winchester Business School, University of Winchester); Lisa Harding​ (Winchester Business School, University of Winchester); Tom Munro (Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty); Ainara Terradillos (Winchester Business School, University of Winchester), and Keith Wilkinson (Department of Archaeology, University of Winchester).
Photography credit: 'Sunburst - Corfe Castle' ©​ Martin Dolan (Dorset AONB).

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