An ESRC-funded high-resolution study into modelling public perceptions of the concept of 'tranquillity' in AONBs and national parks

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About the Tranquillity project

'Tranquillity' is a key motivator in attracting visitors to the UK's Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs). Managing organisations must therefore ensure that development is sensitive to ecological, social and economic interests whilst also fulfilling providing enjoyment of the countryside.

Key to addressing these wide-ranging objectives is the definition of the concept of 'tranquillity'. However, tranquillity is a highly subjective concept and the sheer number of views on what is/not considered to be tranquil is infinite. Just how does one go about capturing, and importantly using, the breadth of views and perspectives on the subject?

The Broadly Engaging with Tranquillity project has taken on precisely this challenge by applying a research design informed by a mixed-methods approach. The study area comprises the landscape of the Dorset AONB in southern England and integrates with the seascape of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site.

The project results from a collaborative partnership between academics and practitioners, including the Dorset AONB team and staff at Dorset County Council. Funding was provided by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ES/L001748/1).

Broadly Engaging with Tranquillity, Easy and Refined (BETER)

In 2017, the team obtained funding from the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) for a follow-up project, Broadly Engaging with Tranquillity, Easy and Refined (BETER). BETER will broaden out the research across both a wider area and a wider range of environments, as well as considerably speed up the survey process.

Find out more about the BETER project.

Research team

Findings overview

Tranquillity is commonly considered a highly subjective and ambiguous concept. Nevertheless, there is a need to establish a definition of practical use. This imperative is due to the fact that in many protected areas and indeed in the wider planning contexts there are statutory requirements for the creation, enhancement and/or protection of tranquil zones. Also, extensive local community engagement in helping to define tranquillity is endorsed and, in best practice, emphasised. This project was created to address these challenges, and produced GIS (Geographic Information Systems) models of tranquillity for the Purbecks in Dorset.

A broad range of stakeholder views was collated from representatives of local authorities, managing agencies and of visitors, three stakeholder groups that had informed previous studies. Unlike these studies, local residents, specifically those classed as ‘hard-to-reach’ members of the local community, were also involved in this project. These participants were categorised in one of the four groups involved in the study through four methods of engagement: two series of participatory action consultation (PAC) events, one comprising representatives of governing agencies, one of residents, a householder survey and a series of visitor onsite surveys. By creating these groups, we introduced additional dimensions to tranquillity studies, including the refinement of local definitions of tranquillity according to each of the views conveyed by each participant group.

With more than 800 participants conveying more than 10,000 views, the study has not only been considered the largest and most comprehensive consultation of its type in the Dorset AONB to date, but it has also created new insights into the subject by identifying for examples of distinctions on views amongst participants; gender distinctions and differences between householders. It also compared all views with those conveyed by representatives of managing agencies. These and additional findings raise further research questions and have practical implications for how tranquillity is defined, modelled and managed in any given area.

GIS models were produced at a resolution of 5 m, i.e. each pixel in the model represents an area of 5 x 5 m. This is a considerably higher resolution than previous models created at 250 x 250 m and 500 x 500 m.

Research methods

Through a series of participatory action frameworks based on principles of consensus, views on the objective and subjective nature of tranquillity were captured. Subsequently and through additional stages of research including participatory action research events, a randomised household questionnaire based on a stratified sampling framework and a series of visitor onsite surveys, the synthesis of views shared with the research team from each of these research stages has determined the final outputs of this research: a high-resolution (5 m) GIS planning tool that can be implemented in protected-area management and that is transferable to alternative locations.​

The entire work is founded on principles of international and national best practice in protected-area governance. Therefore, engagement with rather than purely consultation on the fullest breadth of views is fundamental. These range from public-sector representatives, private enterprises and  NGOs to local resident and business communities, the 'hard to reach' and both domestic and foreign visitors.

The final stages of the research required consultation with stakeholders to verify interpretations of views and of the GIS models. These activities have been progressed through attendance at our partner's Annual Forum, through a series of road shows in the case study area, and through presenting the work at a number of national and international conferences and in leading academic publications and best practice literature.