Abstract

This paper analyses and summarizes European research dealing with forest visitors’ crowding perceptions. Compared with recreation research in North America, where crowding is an important topic, only 16 European crowding studies have been identified since the 1980s. Their focus lies on everyday users in rural and urban forest settings of Central and Northern Europe. In these studies between 10 and 64 per cent of the respondents perceived crowding. Most studies used the same theoretical foundation oriented towards US recreation crowding literature but differed in their methods of measuring crowding. As a result, the use of different scales and data collection methods restrict a nation- and Europe-wide comparison. There is a need for standardized crowding research in order to gain insights into cultural differences and commonalities for integrating forest recreation management into a sustainable framework for forest management.

Introduction

Knowledge about the recreation quality expected by forest visitors and the perceived impacts is necessary to be able to manage forests on a sustainable basis. While the ecological impacts of recreation use have been a central topic in forest recreation research for ∼30 years in Europe (e.g. Volk, 1979; Weiger, 1982; Volk et al., 1995; Schemel and Erbguth, 2000; Ingold, 2005), social impacts such as user conflicts – in particular crowding – have rarely been investigated. This is surprising, as most forests – particularly those in Central Europe – are within the reach of many day users from urban areas or are situated within city limits. As a result, most of these forests face high and increasing recreational use pressure. Therefore, crowding may become a more prominent issue in recreation management.

In times of multi-purpose forestry (Font and Tribe, 1999), the recreational use of forests is gaining greater importance and the need for information about crowding has become apparent for sustainable forest management in Europe. However, the current status of European crowding research has neither, so far, been summarized nor analysed. The objective of this paper is to review the findings and the methodological approaches of studies on crowding in European forests and make recommendations for future studies that will increase their value in terms of comparable results and implications for forest management and policy.

Social–psychological paradigms as a basis for the crowding concept

The concept of crowding describes a negative evaluation of a certain density or number of encounters in a given area (e.g. Schmidt and Keating, 1979; Shelby et al., 1989). Recreation crowding research is rooted in the field of social psychology. Two social–psychological paradigms are predominantly used to explain the differences in crowding perceptions: the model of stimulus overload and the social interference model (Gramann, 1982). The model of stimulus overload was derived from urban indoor settings. Crowding perceptions are maximized when the stimulation exceeds the preferred level of contacts and individuals have no possibilities to reduce or substitute the stimuli creating a physical overload (e.g. Andereck and Becker, 1993). In contrast, crowding as a social interference prevents recreationists from achieving their personal goals if these are based, for example, on solitude and silence which is not possible in some situations – e.g. in heavily used areas (e.g. Evans and Cohen, 1991).

Crowding research in North America

Crowding is considered as the most direct social impact on outdoor recreation and has, therefore, received a great deal of attention in the US (e.g. Shelby et al., 1989; Vaske et al., 1996; Manning, 1999; Vaske and Donnelly, 2002) and, to much a lower extent, in Canada (e.g. Sinclair and Reid, 1974; Needham et al., 2004). Legislation such as the Wilderness Act (1964) was the driving force to examine this field of research in the 1970s in the US. The Wilderness Act established the right to experience solitude and contact with nature as fundamental, making it necessary for public authorities to provide primitive and unconfined recreational experiences. The incorporation of the social dimension for recreation users was therefore considered to be necessary for US forest recreation management (e.g. Wagar, 1974; Lee, 1977).

Research results have documented that high visitor densities lead to high encounter rates which might result in crowding and reduce the quality of an outdoor experience (Absher and Lee, 1981; Shelby and Heberlein, 1986; Hall and Cole, 2007). Early recreation research assumed that the recreationist’s perception of crowding was predominantly influenced by the number of visitors encountered and that this diminished recreation quality and satisfaction (Lucas, 1964). In its long research history, however, it has been shown that the reality in the field is much more complex, and that the perception of crowding is a multifaceted and subjective phenomenon, where the existence of various activities, user goals and preferences for social conditions make global statements difficult (e.g. Stankey, 1971; Vaske et al., 2002).

Due to these differences, information about density or encounter rates alone is of limited value when explaining the potential for recreation conflict (Absher and Lee, 1981; Cole et al., 1997; Vaske et al., 2002; Hall and Cole, 2007). Researchers found the place, visitor activity and characteristics, type of user encountered, as well as user behaviour and culture, to be additional factors influencing crowding (e.g. Ruddell and Gramann, 1994; Vaske et al., 1996; Vaske and Donnelly, 2002; Needham et al., 2004). Usually, conflict increases for users who are negatively affected by certain encounters. Consequently, these users are more sensitive to crowding. The personal characteristics of the visitors, such as their motives and expectations, often significantly influence crowding perceptions (Stankey, 1971; Absher, 1979). For example, Stewart and Cole (2001) found that crowding had a strong negative effect on visitors seeking solitude and silence. Also, belonging to an interest group can result in different tolerance levels towards encounters. Needham and Rollins (2005) showed that individuals representing tourist-related companies accepted higher use densities than stakeholders from government agencies that manage the recreation area. Additionally, the individual’s expectations are seen as reference points when evaluating a situation based on previous experiences (Budruk et al., 2002). Among the scientific community in Northern America, it is now widely accepted that differing visitor characteristics and resource conditions cause individuals to respond to visitor densities in a variety of ways.

Several methods have been used to measure crowding (Heberlein and Vaske, 1977) but one question format and scale dominates the crowding literature (Vaske et al., 2002). This asks people to indicate how crowded the area was at the time of their visit. Responses are given on a nine-point Likert scale (Figure 1). This single-item indicator is widely applied and has been used in many studies across the US (see the review of Shelby et al., 1989), Canada (e.g. Vaske et al., 1996; Needham et al., 2004), New Zealand (e.g. Martinson and Shelby, 1992), Australia (e.g. Inglis et al., 1999) and Asia (e.g. Kim and Shelby, 1998) resulting in numerous crowding ratings for different settings and activities.

Figure 1.

The nine-point Likert scale for measuring crowding (Heberlein and Vaske, 1977).

Figure 1.

The nine-point Likert scale for measuring crowding (Heberlein and Vaske, 1977).

Over the past 30 years, normative crowding research in North America has made significant contributions to outdoor recreation research and management. Crowding norms are generally defined as visitor-based standards that individuals and groups use for evaluating behaviour and social conditions (Vaske et al., 1986; Donnelly et al., 2000). The classical user-based normative approach to crowding focused on standards for encounter indicators (Shelby and Heberlein, 1986; Vaske et al., 1986). Verbal and visual approaches have been developed to determine recreationists’ (e.g. Manning, 2007) and tourists’ crowding norms (e.g. Needham et al., 2004). Analyses of such data determine encounter norms and produce norm curves, which trace the average acceptability ratings of a sample of respondents for encountering a range of individuals or groups along a trail or at one site within a given period of time. The curve is generated by plotting the average responses on a graph where the horizontal axis represents the number of contacts and the vertical axis shows the evaluative response scale. The optimum contact level is the highest point on the curve; the lowest represents the least preferred condition (Manning, 2007). The point where the norm curve crosses the neutral line of the response scale is considered the minimum acceptable condition; and in many studies, this represented the standard of quality for encounter levels (Manning, 2001). The range of acceptable conditions includes all points on the norm curve above the minimum acceptable condition. For example, Manning (2007) presented several studies using image-based approaches and demonstrates that respondents to different settings formulated crowding norms. Needham et al. (2004) showed that backcountry visitors rated similar encounter levels as less acceptable as visitors in easy accessible tourist areas. In addition, when reported encounters exceeded visitors’ encounter norms, perceived crowding was significantly higher in all settings.

Study goals

This paper summarizes and analyses European research dealing with crowding in forests. It explores (1) which settings and user groups have been investigated; (2) which crowding measures have been applied and the factors influencing crowding and (3) compares the European with the North American situation in regard to crowding research. The results serve as a basis for the discussion of the necessity of dealing with crowding in European forests and should assist researchers, managers and policy makers in investigating crowding in rural and urban forests.

Materials and methods

Two data collection approaches were used. Investigations into forest recreation were carried out among 26 participating countries between 2005 and 2008 as part of the European Cost Action E33 ‘Forest for Recreation and Nature Tourism’ (http://www.openspace.eca.ac.uk/coste33/welcome.htm). They focus on household, as well as on-site, surveys to provide a Europe-wide overview of forest recreation and research. The main topics investigated were the methods applied for assessing recreation demand and supply and variables asked in the surveys.

The second approach was a literature review of English, German and French journals, proceedings, project reports and books, systematically investigating the databases of forest-related journals and forest associations, for all reported work since 1980.

Results

The European situation

Based on the Europe-wide comparison of household surveys on forest recreation, at least 40 per cent of the population in each country visits a forest for recreational purposes (Dehez et al., 2007). Common variables which are most often assessed are related to the number of visits, socio-demographics and to the recreation activities. In addition, group size and group composition are furthermore among the most frequently surveyed variables. However, perceived crowding has not been a topic in household surveys (Dehez et al., 2008).

Most European research and monitoring activities carried out in forests include visitor density variables such as the number of visitors, visitor activities and the frequency of visits. Information about socio-psychological variables, such as motives, expectations and crowding perceptions, is frequently missing. Although these items are considered as key variables to indicate why people visit – or do not visit – a forest and how they perceive recreation quality (Arnberger and Grant, 2008). Instead, information on use levels is predominantly drawn on to determine ecologic or economic impact assessments (e.g. Elsasser, 2001; Zundel and Völksen, 2002; Ingold, 2005).

European crowding studies

It was only possible to identify 16 studies from eight countries dealing with crowding in a broader sense since the 1980s (Table 1). These studies took place in Central and Northern Europe. It is clear that during this period, crowding has increased in importance among the European forest research community. While two studies were carried out in the early/mid-1980s and one study in the 1990s, 13 of them were reported during the past decade. Several forest types were studied: urban, suburban and rural forests in about equal proportions. Most of them were organized as regional or local case studies, often carried out in protected areas such as national parks or biosphere reserves. Seasons investigated for on-site studies were mostly the summer or the period between spring and autumn.

Table 1:

Crowding studies in European forests

Study authors Country Context Protected area Methods used User groups investigated Season 
Trakolis and  Harding (1981) UK Rural NP NNR On-site  interview ‘Visitors’  encountered Summer 
Koch (1984) in  Jensen and  Skov-Petersen  (2006) Denmark Suburban – On-site  interview All users  encountered  
Chambers and  Price (1986) UK Rural – On-site  interview Visitors  encountered Summer 
Saarinen (1998) Finland Rural NP On-site  interview Backpacker Summer 
Fredman and  Hörnsten (2001) Sweden Rural NP Mail-back  survey Hiker June–September 
Roovers et al.  (2002) Belgium Suburban – On-site  interview Walker,  jogger,  bicyclist,  horse rider Between  summer and  spring 
Grossmann et al.  (2004) Germany Rural NP On-site  interview Canoeists/ paddler May–August 
Sterl et al. (2004,,  2006) Austria Suburban NP On-site  interview Canoeist Summer 
TNS (2005, 2006UK Rural,  (sub)urban – On-site  interview;  mail-back  survey interview  at home  depending on  study site All users encountered/ local residents  depending on  study site Interviews at  home: summer  or November/ December;  on-site  interviews  between July  and October 
Jensen (2006) Denmark Rural,  (sub)urban – On-site interview All users encountered 1 year 
Mann (2006) Germany Rural NatP Household Hiker, bicyclist,  mountain  biker, horse  rider, jogger/ walker,  hang-glider Summer 
Bernath et al.  (2006) Switzerland Urban – On-site interview;  household survey Visitors/local  residents May–October 
Arnberger and  Brandenburg  (2007) Austria Suburban NP On-site interview All users  encountered Between spring  and autumn 
Arnberger et al.  (2007) Austria Urban BR/NP On-site interview;  household survey All users  encountered/ local residents Between spring  and autumn 
Arnberger and  Haider (2007b) Austria Urban – On-site interview All users  encountered April–October 
Arnberger and  Haider (2007a,  2005Austria Urban – On-site interview All users  encountered Late summer/ early fall 
Study authors Country Context Protected area Methods used User groups investigated Season 
Trakolis and  Harding (1981) UK Rural NP NNR On-site  interview ‘Visitors’  encountered Summer 
Koch (1984) in  Jensen and  Skov-Petersen  (2006) Denmark Suburban – On-site  interview All users  encountered  
Chambers and  Price (1986) UK Rural – On-site  interview Visitors  encountered Summer 
Saarinen (1998) Finland Rural NP On-site  interview Backpacker Summer 
Fredman and  Hörnsten (2001) Sweden Rural NP Mail-back  survey Hiker June–September 
Roovers et al.  (2002) Belgium Suburban – On-site  interview Walker,  jogger,  bicyclist,  horse rider Between  summer and  spring 
Grossmann et al.  (2004) Germany Rural NP On-site  interview Canoeists/ paddler May–August 
Sterl et al. (2004,,  2006) Austria Suburban NP On-site  interview Canoeist Summer 
TNS (2005, 2006UK Rural,  (sub)urban – On-site  interview;  mail-back  survey interview  at home  depending on  study site All users encountered/ local residents  depending on  study site Interviews at  home: summer  or November/ December;  on-site  interviews  between July  and October 
Jensen (2006) Denmark Rural,  (sub)urban – On-site interview All users encountered 1 year 
Mann (2006) Germany Rural NatP Household Hiker, bicyclist,  mountain  biker, horse  rider, jogger/ walker,  hang-glider Summer 
Bernath et al.  (2006) Switzerland Urban – On-site interview;  household survey Visitors/local  residents May–October 
Arnberger and  Brandenburg  (2007) Austria Suburban NP On-site interview All users  encountered Between spring  and autumn 
Arnberger et al.  (2007) Austria Urban BR/NP On-site interview;  household survey All users  encountered/ local residents Between spring  and autumn 
Arnberger and  Haider (2007b) Austria Urban – On-site interview All users  encountered April–October 
Arnberger and  Haider (2007a,  2005Austria Urban – On-site interview All users  encountered Late summer/ early fall 

BR, biosphere reserve; NP, national park; NatP, nature park; NNR, national nature reserve.

One comprehensive, nationwide, outdoor recreation study from Denmark, which included one crowding question, covered all forest types (Jensen, 2006), but has, so far, not reported on the differences regarding crowding perceptions across forest settings. In this study, 592 recreation areas, including nearly all state forests and many private forest properties as well as some nature areas such as beaches, were surveyed between 1996 and 1997. The methods used were year-round car counts by human observers and questionnaires at parking areas.

New methods of measuring the quality of visitor experience (quality of experience (QoE) surveys) began in England and Wales in 2003 and 2006, respectively, including several forest sites, now monitored each year (see the reports for 2005–2006; TNS, 2005, 2006). However, the QoE survey focuses more on conflicts than on crowding perceptions because of the application of the more general ‘perceived enjoyment measure’ for several visitor groups encountered.

The recreational user groups surveyed in all identified European crowding studies were usually all on-site users encountered, such as walkers, joggers, bicyclists, dog walkers, hikers. Two studies focussed on canoeists (Grossmann et al., 2004; Sterl et al., 2004, 2006), while one study specifically investigated several activity groups such as hikers, mountain bikers and horse riders (Mann, 2006). Several studies (Bernath et al., 2006; Arnberger et al., 2007; TNS 2005, 2006) focussed on crowding perceptions of local residents.

Crowding measures and question format

On-site interviews were used in most studies for collecting crowding data. Few relied on mail-back questionnaires, household surveys of local residents, interviewing people at home or a combination of several data collection approaches (Table 1). Different measures were employed to assess crowding perceptions as a dependent variable (Table 2). In most studies, the measure referred to the situation actually encountered or the last forest visit. Only a few studies used global measures of perceived crowding. These measures are based on the respondent’s aggregation of numerous individual crowding situations over a larger spatial unit and/or time period subsumed to one overall evaluation. Some global measures differentiated between weekends and workdays (Arnberger and Haider, 2007b). A few studies used several measures, i.e. global and actual measures and/or image-based studies. In three Austrian studies, images were used to explore the hypothetical contribution of various social conditions such as the visitor numbers, direction of movement and group size to encounter preferences or intended displacement.

Table 2:

Crowding measures, response scales, independent variables and proportions of forest visitors who perceived crowding

Study authors Crowding measure Answer scales* Independent variables Proportions of crowded visitors per study (%) 
Trakolis and Harding  (1981) Actual Univariate nine-point  measure Not reported 11 
Koch (1984) in Jensen  and Skov-Petersen  (2006) Actual Bipolar three-point  measure Not reported Not analysed 
Chambers and Price  (1986) Actual Bipolar seven-point  measure Yes Not clearly stated 
Saarinen (1998) Attitudes Bipolar five-point  pleasantness measure Yes  
Fredman and  Hörnsten (2001) Actual Univariate nine-point  measure Yes 24.5 
Roovers et al. (2002) Actual Univariate five-point  measure Not reported 10 
Grossmann et al.  (2004) Actual Univariate four-point  measure Yes 55 
Sterl et al. (2004,  2006) Actual preferences  (images) Bipolar five-point  measure Yes 30 
TNS (2005, 2006) Actual (recent visit) Bipolar five-point  enjoyment measure  for several visitor  groups encountered Yes 0–85 with decreased  enjoyment  depending  on study site 
Jensen (2006) Univariate Actual nine-point  measure Not reported 17 
Mann (2006) Global and actual  (last visit) Univariate nine-point  measures Yes 19 
Bernath et al. (2006) Global Univariate three-point  measure Not reported Locals: 30; on-site:  25–29 
Arnberger and  Brandenburg  (2007) Global Univariate four-point  measure Yes 36 
Arnberger et al.  (2007) Global (for two  area sections) Bipolar seven-point  measures Not reported For Sundays: 47/30 
Arnberger and  Haider (2007b) Global and actual Bipolar seven-point  measures Yes Actual: 17.5; global  weekends: 64;  workdays: 15 
Arnberger and Haider  (2007a,) Use displacement  (images) Binary (yes/no) Yes – 
Study authors Crowding measure Answer scales* Independent variables Proportions of crowded visitors per study (%) 
Trakolis and Harding  (1981) Actual Univariate nine-point  measure Not reported 11 
Koch (1984) in Jensen  and Skov-Petersen  (2006) Actual Bipolar three-point  measure Not reported Not analysed 
Chambers and Price  (1986) Actual Bipolar seven-point  measure Yes Not clearly stated 
Saarinen (1998) Attitudes Bipolar five-point  pleasantness measure Yes  
Fredman and  Hörnsten (2001) Actual Univariate nine-point  measure Yes 24.5 
Roovers et al. (2002) Actual Univariate five-point  measure Not reported 10 
Grossmann et al.  (2004) Actual Univariate four-point  measure Yes 55 
Sterl et al. (2004,  2006) Actual preferences  (images) Bipolar five-point  measure Yes 30 
TNS (2005, 2006) Actual (recent visit) Bipolar five-point  enjoyment measure  for several visitor  groups encountered Yes 0–85 with decreased  enjoyment  depending  on study site 
Jensen (2006) Univariate Actual nine-point  measure Not reported 17 
Mann (2006) Global and actual  (last visit) Univariate nine-point  measures Yes 19 
Bernath et al. (2006) Global Univariate three-point  measure Not reported Locals: 30; on-site:  25–29 
Arnberger and  Brandenburg  (2007) Global Univariate four-point  measure Yes 36 
Arnberger et al.  (2007) Global (for two  area sections) Bipolar seven-point  measures Not reported For Sundays: 47/30 
Arnberger and  Haider (2007b) Global and actual Bipolar seven-point  measures Yes Actual: 17.5; global  weekends: 64;  workdays: 15 
Arnberger and Haider  (2007a,) Use displacement  (images) Binary (yes/no) Yes – 
*

Univariate measure, scale ranging from no crowding perceptions to extremely crowding perceptions; bipolar measures, scale ranging from undercrowding to no crowding/pleasant to extremely crowding perceptions.

Two studies investigated attitudes towards meeting other visitors along the trails in a backpacker area and in an urban forest and one survey asked forest visitors if they had encountered different visitor types during their most recent visits and how this had affected their enjoyment.

Univariate and bipolar measures of perceived crowding were applied in about equal proportions for urban, suburban and rural areas (Table 2). While the bipolar measure captures information about the positive and negative effects of crowding, with a scale ranging from an undercrowded to an overcrowded situation, with a ‘neutral’ or ‘pleasant’ midpoint, the univariate measure focuses on overcrowding only (see Figure 1). Among each of the measure categories, various response scales, differing in wording and in number of scale points, were used. Four studies used the nine-point Likert scale as suggested by Heberlein and Vaske (1977), but collected data in different ways or focussed on different user groups. Other studies employed univariate measures with four- or five-point response scales.

Bipolar measures used three-, five- or seven-point scales. These scales ranged from a ‘too undercrowded’ to an ‘overcrowded’ situation or from ‘too much solitude’ to ‘excessively overcrowded’. Other scales ranged from ‘deserted’ to ‘packed’, ‘too few people’ to ‘too many people’ or ‘decreased enjoyment a lot’ to ‘increased enjoyment a lot’. Midpoints on the bipolar scales indicated a pleasant, comfortable, appropriate, acceptable, made no difference or an about right, social situation. When surveying encounter attitudes, the response scale ranged from a pleasant to an unpleasant situation. All these variations, in scale, wording and reporting, caused problems to compare the results of the identified studies for further analysis. The poles of the scales pointed in similar directions to describe the perceived recreational situation, but were too heterogeneous to compare the degree of perceived crowding. Few studies used several measures in combination, i.e. global and actual measures and/or image-based approaches. Most studies relied only on the actual measure.

Number of crowded respondents and independent factors

Crowding perceptions were reported in all studies (Table 2). The proportions of respondents who perceived crowding in these studies ranged from 10 to 64 per cent. A clear picture, differentiated by countries or settings, is not apparent.

Seven studies, using actual measures, i.e. respondents were asked to report perceived crowding based on the current social condition encountered or during their last trip encountered, carried out visitor counts in parallel or asked respondents about the number of encounters during their stay (Table 2). Similar to the US research, these studies showed relationships between the subjectively reported number of encounters and objectively monitored use levels and perceived crowding. Investigations into the social–psychological factors influencing crowding perceptions were presented in only a few studies. Authors predominantly correlated expectations, motives, satisfaction and past experiences with crowding and found significant relationships: crowding had a negative effect on visitors seeking solitude and silence and decreased satisfaction of the quality of outdoor recreation. Especially, forest visitors who repeatedly visited one forest area, and thus having some past experience, tended to be more sensitive towards crowding.

Discussion and recommendations

This paper summarizes and analyses crowding research in European forests for the first time. The findings reveal that European studies on crowding are rare and diverse, compared with the numerous and focussed research efforts in North America, particularly in the US. At the same time, the increasing number of publications in the past decade indicates that more attention is being paid to this topic in Europe.

In most Southern, Eastern – and several Central – European countries, however, crowding is not recognized as an issue for forest recreation research and management. Besides little political willingness and financial constraints, the predominant open access to forest roads, paths and trails also on public land, as well as the lack of legal requirements are considered among the main obstacles to putting more emphasis on recreation crowding research (Gentin et al., 2008). The diverse landownership structure may play an additional role. In most European countries, landownership is a complex, often small-scaled patchwork of dominating private and some few public landowners (Hirsch et al., 2007). The 78 million ha of North American national forests, which are covering ∼8.5 per cent of the total land area (US Forest Service, 2008), are often protected forests and woodland areas which are larger in size compared with European public forests. They are managed by the Forest Service to also provide opportunities for recreation in open spaces and natural environments, including managing opportunities for solitude and wilderness experiences (see ‘Wilderness Act’). Therefore, the idea of social carrying capacity and with it standardized applicable recreation measurements like crowding were used to apply and enforce the respective legislations. Thus, providing forest recreational supply is clearly a service provided by the US State. In contrast, we assume that private landowners in the US are less obliged in providing recreation services, e.g. open access for the public, and, as an effect, conducting less outdoor recreation research.

Implications

Higher levels of crowding perceptions were identified, indicating that crowding should become a management and policy issue in European forests, in particular, because Central European forests should serve as spaces to counter the stress of urban life and provide relief from high population densities, contributing to the psychological well-being of the urban population. Although different settings were included, there was no consistent trend for urban forests being perceived as more crowded than rural forests despite higher densities. However, because of the different methodological approaches and scales used, as well as the low number of studies, reliable inter-forest comparisons are difficult to make. Aggregate and cross-cultural crowding analyses, which have occurred in the North American literature (e.g. Shelby et al., 1989; Vaske et al., 1996; Vaske and Donnelly, 2002), are not yet possible for European settings. The need for a standardization of crowding research seems necessary in order to provide a deeper understanding of crowding perceptions, to gain insights into cultural differences and commonalities and to increase knowledge among the diversity of forest types, not only on a European but also on a nationwide level. England and Wales, as well as Denmark, can act as role models because of their comparatively long experiences in setting up national recreation monitoring programmes. As an effect, they have collected crowding-related data such as the number and the frequency of visits in a systematic way for their nationwide studies (Dehez et al., 2008).

Besides methodological differences, most identified European studies have used the same theoretical foundation of the relationship between reported or objectively measured encounters and perceived crowding, based on the US recreation crowding literature, and incorporated crowding-related measures as univariate or bipolar scales in their research designs.

A factor missing from European research is to identify commonly shared acceptable encounter levels. Few European studies have attempted verbal or visual approaches to elicit crowding preferences or intended displacement but have not gone further to measure crowding norms. The general access rights to forests and most of the protected areas and the lack of legal requirements like the Wilderness Act and management options for limiting visitor numbers may be significant barriers in doing so.

Similar to the US, a range of crowding studies have been undertaken in protected areas. Driven to control the impacts of recreation use upon wildlife, information on social aspects, including crowding, provides a sound evidence base for solving the conflicts between nature conservation and tourism/recreation. Nature conservation is, therefore, the driving force in forest crowding research in these situations.

In contrast to the North American literature, with its focus on wilderness, backcountry and protected areas and their specific and rather homogeneous user composition (e.g. backcountry hiking including camping activities), the European studies mainly surveyed urban or urban-proximate forest users. Many of them are everyday users with high levels of past experience, who stayed mostly a few hours in the forest. Those forest users are engaged in diverse recreation activities such as walking, jogging, mountain biking, Nordic walking, dog walking, picnicking, horse riding. Only a few studies focused explicitly on one of these user groups or compared crowding ratings across several user groups. Consequently, knowledge about specific user group and/or ethnical needs and their reported crowding is limited.

Additionally, only a small number of studies included independent variables that influence crowding – except perhaps some use of density measures such as use levels or encounters. This is surprising, considering that especially the US literature has for a long time held a broader perspective, and that data on visitor characteristics inform management about those who are sensitive to crowding and their reasons for reacting to it. Incorporating these kinds of questions would provide valuable information for forest management in dealing with recreation use.

Crowding measures

The diversity of crowding measures and response scales applied in European studies is confusing. The question about which of the measures and response scales should be used to obtain the best information about crowding must be raised. On the other hand, the diversity of measures and response scales provides a rich knowledge basis on how crowding can be recorded in diverse settings and contexts.

The single-item nine-point Likert scale has been used in a range of studies because it is easy to interpret and compare results across studies and countries. Bipolar measures can include more information, but might not be so sensitive regarding (over)crowding perceptions when not using the single-item nine-point Likert scale. The bipolar scale revealed that perceived underuse, due to safety concerns (Luymes and Tamminga, 1995) or social understimulation (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1982), is an additional urban forest phenomenon in several areas. Particularly for the urban context, undercrowding can deliver information about an ineffective recreation use of the, in many cases, few urban forests and about their potential to absorb more visitors from other overcrowded urban green spaces. Consequently, combining both measures would provide most valuable information to better understand the European situation empirically and improve managerial decisions.

The same applies to the time period asked for in the studies, when and where crowding was perceived, either on-site or shortly after the visit (as actual measures) or as a global measurement referring to a series of past experiences in one setting. As confirmed by the European studies, the actual measure of crowding follows the classical crowding research approach and is typically concerned with use levels or encounter indicators (Shelby et al., 1989). In contrast, global measures of perceived crowding summarize the longer term attitudes and concerns of visitors towards the forest more accurately than one single, actual crowding measure (Arnberger and Haider, 2007b). This applies especially for repeat users having some past experience, who can be predominantly found in urban and urban-proximate forests. To study crowding, we propose to apply several crowding measures for on-site studies in the European context: using global as well as actual bipolar measures appears to be the most appropriate approach. A differentiation of the global measure between different weekdays or even seasons may provide additional valuable information. If univariate crowding measures are utilized, they might use a standardized nine-point response scale. Ideally, the measure should be a bipolar response scale ranging from an undercrowded situation to an overcrowded one with a midpoint, which may indicate a pleasant social use condition. A 17-point bipolar scale would allow making findings comparable to these studies, which used the traditional nine-point response scale. Additional information about encountered use densities and their perceptions by forest users would help to better recognize changes in the recreation system, its uses and users over time. Ideally, on-site crowding measures should be complemented by bipolar global crowding measures for forests in (national) household surveys.

Recommendations for forest management and policy

The practical aim of crowding studies is to support decision makers in choosing and implementing strategies to reduce social conflict. By understanding that perceived crowding is more likely to be based on visitor characteristics than solely on physical disturbances points towards important implications for recreation management and policy making. Thus, only considering reducing the number of visitors, or physical separation, may be an insufficient solution if the problem is socially and psychologically rooted (Owens, 1985).

Forest management can influence several of these social–psychological factors to reduce crowding perceptions and increase recreation quality (Budruk et al., 2002; Vaske et al., 2002; Hall and Cole, 2007). Knowing a setting is perceived as being less crowded can be regarded as a distinct feature, i.e. a low-density recreation experience. Promoting recreation use in these areas should be considered carefully because an increase in use could change the experience (Shelby et al., 1989). In turn, if an area is considered to be crowded, managers may consider keeping it as such because high visitor numbers can be an acceptable part of the recreation experience, especially in tourist areas or urban forests. Crowding information can help urban green space management to identify areas with too low use levels and to deflect recreation use from overcrowded green spaces. Accompanying area design and infrastructural modifications, as well as visitor management strategies, can be implemented. Efforts can be introduced to redistribute visitor density, for instance, by encouraging visitors to use varying routes or offering special activities or guided tours for temporal separation. Vegetation placement and the design of curved paths can also help to reduce encounters by minimizing visual contacts (Arnberger and Haider, 2005). In addition, information to adjust visitor expectations will reduce the probability of crowding perceptions and enhance visitor experiences. Information on the probable number of contacts in an area, including information about peak visiting times and seasons, will enable visitors to plan according to their density preferences (Budruk et al., 2002).

Crowding may be of higher importance in the future due to the ongoing societal demands for outdoor recreation together with trends towards concentrating uses on fewer paths and areas because of ecological impacts. Without establishing adequate opportunities for crowding-sensitive forms of recreation, social conflicts may occur more often. A recommendation for policy making is to foster periodic recreation use monitoring, including the establishment of standardized measures of visitor densities, as well as the social evaluative variable of perceived crowding.

The Pan-European Indicators for Sustainable Forest Management established by the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe (MCPFE, 2003) may serve as a political orientation. The Criterion 6 ‘Maintenance of other socio-economic functions and conditions’ and in particular the indicator 6.10 ‘Accessibility for recreation’ demand for information of recreational uses. Although it has so far not suggested measures of recreation quality, it could be used as a common framework to be concretized on the national level in a standardized descriptive and evaluative way for crowding measurement. Particularly, urban and suburban forests not providing the desired visitor experiences can provoke use displacement and may lead to lower participation rates in outdoor recreation, which in turn can affect the health of city dwellers. Those who have no access to more remote and lower used areas may be specifically concerned. An inclusion of quality indicators of outdoor recreation experience in national forest laws would help to better recognize changes in the societal use of forest and would deliver valuable information for sustainable forest management.

Funding

The paper draws on work being undertaken as part of the EU funded Cost Action: “Cost E33: Forest Recreation and Nature Tourism”. This European Cooperation in the field of Scientific and Technical Research allowed experts from around Europe to network and to pool research and practice.

Conflict of Interest Statement

None declared.

We would like to thank Neil Grant, Frank Sondergaard Jensen, Pieter Roovers, Jeoffrey Dehez and Sandra Gentin for their inputs to this paper and the two anonymous reviewers.

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