Real-time information from environmental sensors could enable Britain’s natural parks to double as science stations, while also becoming more eco-friendly and pleasant to visitors.

A view of the northern ascent of Catbells (facing south) in the Lake District near Keswick, Cumbria, England. Photo by David Iliff, CC 3.0.

A walk in the park

Professor Edward Truch, a Director of the Connected Communities Research Lab at Lancaster University Management School, published a report called Parks: Bringing smart technologies to National Park. Within, he describes how parks could improve the overall park experience, while also saving money in the process and helping the natural environment cope with the increased number of visitors. These are situations with which parks all around the world are struggling, not just Britain.

“National Parks are under increasing pressure to deliver more for less and with population booms, visitor numbers are increasing – putting greater strain on the natural environment.”

Truch’s project relies on the so-called Internet of Things — embedding internet communication to a number of everyday objects, including sensors. The idea is that a group of simple real-time communication from simple sensors could make a big difference for both visitors and science.

For instance, they could tell drivers if and where there are available parking places, which could save a lot of hassle, and reduce emissions for needless driving. Similarly, it could tell park officials when bins are full and need picking up — again, ensuring that garbage trucks don’t make unnecessary rounds. It could also tell trekkers when a storm is incoming, or where the nearest rest point is. It could even tell them when they’re getting too tired, and the best part of it is that smart systems could do so with currently existing technology.

“Visitors are already making use of intelligent connected devices through apps like Google, Ordinance Survey and Booking.com for things like navigation and accommodation bookings. Some areas of the world are already drastically cutting traffic pollution by introducing ‘smart’ car parking systems, for example, directing individual motorists to available car parking spaces.”

Technology and nature

There’s a particular irony to using advancing technology to protect these natural landscapes, but this notion of a connected, Smart Park seems quite promising. After all, it doesn’t require a big shift in how the parks are managed, and if it could save money and make the entire process greener, what’s not to like?

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Another potential benefit to this approach is that through data both from park sensors and the visitors themselves, researchers would be able to access a trove of valuable data, especially as environmental monitors and sensors are becoming cheaper and cheaper.

Ultimately, people can still enjoy a complete disconnect if that’s what they want. If you don’t want your phone to direct you to the nearest pub or tell you where to park, you can always just ignore it, or shut it down — though some will certainly find that impossible.

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