2.1 This Chapter outlines the research aims and methods used to fulfil them, and also describes the scope of the study in terms of ‘visitor centres’ and ‘open space users’.
2.2 The objectives of this research were agreed as follows:
To research nationally and in other countries some successful ‘honey-pot’ facilities for visitor/information/education centres, which attract and encourage users of open space for recreational use but also those which are aimed at wildlife interpretation and education. Ways will be identified in which content/themes are used to allow attractions to co-exist in a complimentary way within each other’s catchment area: for example, ‘education and fieldwork’; ‘scientific purposes’; ‘information for recreation and access’; ‘wildlife or environmental information’; ‘cultural information’ (e.g. local crafts/history etc); ‘heritage information’ and so on.
To investigate the existence of current methodologies used to make the case for visitor/information/education centres that attract and encourage users of open space (this will include mechanisms considered to secure long-term maintenance, management and sustainability of such facilities).
2.3 The research methods employed were qualitative, and both primary and secondary evidence was drawn on. To fulfil Objective 1 an internet search was conducted to find interesting examples of visitor centres predominantly within the UK that could be useful in terms of further exploration beyond the scoping study for Phase 2 of Greengrid’s research project. Also, relevant secondary information was obtained and informal telephone interviews were undertaken with staff and funders of the centres. Some site visits were also made. Reports on the visitor centres are found in Chapter 3 in the form of a series of short cameos. A proforma was developed to elicit relevant information from visitor centre staff and funders.
2.4 Where appropriate the locations identified in Task 1 were considered for Task 2 in terms of obtaining any feasibility studies or business plans that had been developed for particular visitor centres. Methodologies for feasibility studies were examined through obtaining a selection of reports via contacts with visitor centre staff or funding partners and details of the areas that generally are considered when conducting feasibility studies (e.g. financial; resources such as staff; catchment area served; potential visitors survey; opportunities for use of open space); data and information sources that are drawn on; and, promotion and marketing techniques, are reported on in Chapter 4. Specific methods used (e.g. for future projections; multiplier effects etc.) are also referred to. The report makes reference to studies that may be useful to Greengrid for the Second Phase of the research. A range of landscape types were considered where visitor centres co-exist, with the emphasis mainly being on centres for ‘users of open space’.
In relation to definitions a visitor centre was considered to be a place that was more substantial than an information point but where people would spend at least twenty minutes to over an hour in search of information or education or tangible experience(s). The Countryside Agency (2000) describes visitor centres as typically providing information to orientate visitors, together with more detailed interpretation of the area’s qualities, history and heritage. They usually contain additional facilities such as a shop (often with branded merchandise and pocket money gifts), catering, toilets and car parking. Education was considered as being, ‘an educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by first hand experience and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information’ (Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site Interpretation Action Plan, 2005). Interpretation is put alongside ‘information’, ‘facilities’ and ‘inspiration’ as one of the four factors that is needed in order to educate. Users of outdoor space were taken to include: walkers (from hill walkers to dog-walkers and strollers); climbers; those involved with water sport activities; those using specific aspects of the environment (such as pot-holers or hang-gliders); people involved with using the environment for educational/scientific purposes and fieldwork (e.g. archaeology; ornithology; survey; wildlife appreciation); those wanting to spend time in the open air in a location where there were activities and facilities were provided, and people who simply want to find out about the local areas and beyond in terms of leisure opportunities and access to the local countryside.
2.6 In order to investigate the nature of visitor and education centres and identify situations where factors affecting their long term sustainability could be considered further, certain honeypot areas were identified in different types of landscapes. These covered upland settings such as the Lake District; Northumberland and Exmoor; the lowland estuarine example of Merseyside (which had certain features comparable with the Thames Gateway area in terms of urban development and estuarine features); the Jurassic Coast along the south of England between Exmouth and Swanage (the area is now being promoted as ‘the Jurassic Coast’ and consequently there are plans to superimpose new visitor centres along the existing education and visitor centre structure); Blaenavon World Heritage Site in Wales (gateway to the Brecon Beacons); Aberdeenshire in Scotland (upland, remote but Aberdeen representing a large population centre; and Marston Vale near Milton Keynes. Also, information was assimilated on some international examples, one of which is the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust which is seen as an international example of best practice, and Velewezoom area in the Netherlands which contains two national parks and is part of the EU’s Boundless Park’s initiative. Details of these are presented in the following Chapter.