An aerial view of a Georgian crescent with surrounding streets and green spaces.
Historic Bath seen from the air, including Royal Crescent and the surrounding streets and green spaces. © istock 1199241978
Historic Bath seen from the air, including Royal Crescent and the surrounding streets and green spaces. © istock 1199241978

Geographic Exposure to Heritage Reported Visits and Income Deprivation in England

Research exploring how geographic exposure to heritage varies according to income deprivation, and how exposure influences visits to heritage.

Project background

This project is a collaboration between academics within the Places and Health programme at the Medical Research Council /Chief Scientist Office Social and Public Health Sciences Unit (MRC/CSO SPHSU) , and colleagues from Historic England (Monkton, Gallou), to investigate how spatial and survey data may help to explore the health impacts of heritage environments.

Heritage and health

There is an ever-sharper focus within Public Health on environments which help us stay healthy. Research has paid considerable attention to the benefits of green spaces; how they can protect our physical and mental wellbeing was centre-stage during the COVID-19 lockdowns. A much smaller evidence base suggests that visiting heritage, such as historic buildings or monuments, may offer similar health benefits; heritage engagement has been associated with stress reduction, increased physical activity, improved life satisfaction, and improvements in mental health.

Inequality in visits to heritage

Despite these benefits, research indicates that people living in more deprived neighbourhoods are less likely to engage in the arts, culture and heritage regardless of an individual’s personal socio-economic status (Mak et. al 2021).

One contributing factor could be poorer geographic exposure – by which we mean the proximity and availability of heritage sites to visit or landscapes to experience. The interaction between neighbourhood-level exposure to heritage and socio-economic situation in influencing visits is a dimension of heritage which has received less attention.

Mapping geographic exposure to heritage in England

The team obtained information on the location of listed buildings, scheduled monuments and historic parks and gardens from Historic England colleagues. We used a Geographic Information System to map heritage sites (as of 2020). As an example, Figure 1. shows heritage data for Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.

We created various measures to capture heritage exposure, such as densities of listed buildings, and percentage of land designated as monuments or historic parks and gardens. Mapping in this way enabled us to link data on the heritage environment with data on the socio-economic situation, at small neighbourhood area level.

Figure 2. shows listed buildings per 1000 population for Lower Super Output Area (LSOA) ‘neighbourhoods’ (i.e. LSOAs are small areas used in the Census) around Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. Darker blue areas represent higher densities of listed buildings. We used LSOAs in our analysis as they can be linked to population numbers, deprivation scores, and heritage survey data.

We used the income measure from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) English Index of Multiple Deprivation to capture the socio-economic situation of the neighbourhood areas, i.e. LSOAs. Table 1 shows the mean number of listed buildings per 1000 population, and per square kilometre of land in an LSOA, by income-deprivation quintile (LSOAs ranked by deprivation, divided into five equal groups).

We used these two measures because they each capture different aspects of the ‘supply’ of heritage. Across the 32,844 LSOAs, the mean number of buildings was 6.7 per 1000 people and 10.7 per square Kilometre. The latter figure seems high. This is because more densely settled LSOAs with large numbers of listed buildings tend to be physically small. The more income-deprived (i.e. poorer) areas (Quintile (Q)1) had fewer buildings per 1000 people on average (1.7) compared to the more affluent areas (Q5: 10.0). The poorer areas also showed the lowest mean number of listed buildings per square Kilometre (Q1: 8.6).

Table 1. Listed buildings (2020) - mean number per population and per area, by income-deprivation quintiles.

Income deprivationMean number per 1000 populationMean number per square kilometre
Q1 (more deprived areas)1.78.6
Q5 (more affluent area)10.09.9

Table 2 shows the mean percentage of land occupied by scheduled monuments and historic parks and gardens. The more affluent areas have, on average, a higher percentage of land that is classified as scheduled monuments (Q5: 0.21%), and a higher percentage devoted to historic parks/gardens (Q5: 1.28%) than poorer areas (Q1: 0.11% and 0.61% respectively). Overall, the results suggest geographic exposure to heritage is socio-economically unequal; poorer areas have fewer assets identified as heritage.

Table 2. Scheduled monuments and historic parks and gardens (2020) - mean percentage cover by income deprivation quintiles.

Income deprivationMean % land that is
scheduled monuments
Mean % land that is
historic parks/gardens
Q1 (more deprived areas)0.110.61
Q5 (more affluent areas)0.281.28

Geographic exposure and visits to heritage

We were also interested in whether geographic exposure to heritage is associated with whether an individual is likely to visit. We used existing data from wave five (2014) of the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS). The UKHLS is a large panel survey, which has tracked around 31,000 people in England since 2009.

Respondents were asked how often they visited each of these heritage sites:-‘a city or town with historic character’, ‘a historic building’, ‘a historic place of worship’, ‘a historic park or garden, ‘a place of industrial history or historic transport system’, ‘a monument such as a castle, fort or ruin’, ‘a site of archaeological interest’ and a ‘sports heritage site’, in the past 12 months.

Around 61% of respondents (n=19,232) reported visiting a heritage site at least once in the past 12 months. However, 77% of individuals living in more affluent areas reported visiting a heritage site, compared to 40% in poorer areas. We then created and joined measures of heritage exposure for 2014 based on the study respondents’ neighbourhoods of residence (i.e. LSOAs as respondent postal codes were unavailable). It is important to understand we did not know whether the visits reported were to heritage in the respondent’s neighbourhood.

Table 3 shows the percentage of respondents visiting any heritage at least once in the past year, against various measures of their local (i.e. LSOA level) heritage exposure.

Fewer people visited heritage when their neighbourhood did not contain any heritage sites.

As the number of listed buildings per 1000 population increased, the percentage visiting heritage increased (no listed buildings - 56.8% visited heritage, five or more - 69.1% visited). However, greater ‘amounts’ of heritage in the neighbourhood area were not necessarily linked to higher rates of visiting; for the percentage of land as monuments/historic parks/gardens, and heritage sites per km², the middle category of exposure (1-4) had the highest levels of visiting.

Table 3. Percentage of English UKHLS respondents (2014) who visited heritage in past year by level of exposure at LSOA level.

CategoryValue% visited
Number of listed
buildings per
1000 population
056.8 (9844)
1-463.9 (4312)
5+69.1 (5076)
% land cover as
scheduled monuments
& historic parks/gardens
059.6 (15607)
1.4%69.2 (2694)
5+%67.6 (931)
Number of heritage
sites (all) per km²
057.5 (8311)
1-467.0 (6047)
5+61.2 (4874)

Next steps: Geographic exposure and health

Existing evidence shows that engagement with heritage is good for your health and wellbeing, but less is known about whether the physical presence of historically significant buildings, monuments or green space in your local neighbourhood also provides benefits to health for all, for residents as well as visitors. We aim to unpack these complex issues using health data from UKHLS respondents.

Why is our research valuable and potentially impactful?

Our findings highlight lower exposure to heritage within poorer neighbourhoods in England and an apparent association between very low exposure to local heritage and lower levels of visiting heritage in general.

These results can feed into place-based schemes to tackle inequality in exposure to heritage in poorer neighbourhoods.

Schemes may include targeting specific communities/areas to improve access, knowledge, and awareness of heritage, and providing investment in heritage environments in need of reinvigoration.

Such schemes have the potential to improve heritage engagement and ultimately provide benefits to health and wellbeing

About the authors

Name and role

Laura Macdonald MSc.

Title and organisation
Research Associate at Places and Health Programme, MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit (SPHSU), University of Glasgow.
Laura has a background in Sociology, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and has worked as a public health researcher for 20 years. Laura’s research explores the processes by which features of the local social and physical environment influence health and wellbeing, with a focus on health inequalities.

Name and role

Prof Richard Mitchell PhD

Title and organisation
Programme Leader at Places and Health Programme, SPHSU
Rich is an epidemiologist and geographer with a particular focus on the roles which environments can play in creating, maintaining and reducing inequalities in health. He is interested in natural environments and the potential for aspects of the environment to positively influence population health and reduce health inequalities. In addition to leading the Places and Health Programme, he is a co-director of the Centre for Research on Environment, Society and Health (CRESH).

Name and role

Dr Natalie Nicholls PhD

Title and organisation
Statistician at Places and Health Programme, SPHSU
Natalie trained as a veterinarian, but transitioned to statistical and epidemiological work during her PhD. She now works as a statistician supporting the Places and Health Programme, but retains an interest in epidemiology, both human and animal.

Further information

Journal articles and reports

Van den Berg, M, Wendel-Vos, W, Van Poppel, M, Kemper, H, van Mechelen, W and Maas, J 2015 ‘Health benefits of green spaces in the living environment: A systematic review of epidemiological studies’. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening 14, 806-816

Reilly, S, Nolan, C and Monckton, L 2018. ‘Wellbeing and the Historic Environment’. Historic England Report, 1-69

Mak, H W, Coulter, R and Fancourt, D 2021 ‘Associations between community cultural engagement and life satisfaction, mental distress and mental health functioning using data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS): are associations moderated by area deprivation?’ BMJ Open 11

Mak, H W, Coulter, R and Fancourt, D 2021 ‘Associations between neighbourhood deprivation and engagement in arts, culture and heritage: evidence from two nationally-representative samples’ BMC Public Health,  21, 1-10



After the initial publication of this magazine article in February 2022, an article about the study was published in the British Medical Journal BMJ Open in March 2023, along with a blog on the topic from co-author Laura Macdonald.

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