Increasing interest in nature and its well-being effects has created an unprecedented increase in visitor numbers to nature destinations. This trend has been highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Thus, there is an increasing demand for urban forests, parks and nature paths with easily accessible opportunities even without travelling. This article focuses on the Finnish experience and lessons learned for developing urban recreational areas locally.

Author: Tuuli Mirola

In addition to the 41 national parks (Metsähallitus 2022a), there are numerous other local nature destinations and trails in Finland. For example, only in the province of South Karelia, there are over 130 trails and 340 other nature spots (South Karelian Foundation for Recreation Areas 2022). These kind of recreational nature sites maintained by towns and municipalities have increased in popularity (Saarinen 2022, 31) and investments are made to create more local options.

Designing accessible visitor-friendly nature sites with local input

In Finland nature services maintained by Metsähallitus and UNESCO World Heritage Sites have shared principles of sustainable tourism to preserve the areas and their nature. This co-operation enables the protection of the areas, minimizes the negative environmental impact, supports the local economy, works for the wellbeing of the visitors, and helps in informing about the values and services of the sites. (Metsähallitus 2016) The same guidelines can also be followed on local development projects when creating urban recreational sites.

Everyone of different ages and fitness levels should be able to find suitable recreational destinations nearby. Investing in accessibility by built-in structures ensures equal and safe experiences for everyone. The local examples from Lappeenranta include Pappilanniemi nature trail which is 1,8 km, accessible urban trail (Etelä-Karjalan virkistysaluesäätiö 2022) whereas the 1 km Health Forest trail in Uus-Lavola is a narrow footpath (Lappeenranta events 2021). The 480 m Tyysterniemi trail is currently under construction to upgrade it as accessible (Lappeenrannan kaupunki 2022).

Good guidance makes sites safe and visitor friendly. Guideposts should be weatherproof, easy to find and accessible. Using short sentences, symbols and colors to mark interesting attractions, distances, resting spots and other services, enhances accessibility. Online maps help plan the visits beforehand. (Invalidiliitto 2017) Arrival instructions by foot, cycle, car, or public transport are also necessary even on urban sites.

Info board with a map, text and pictures.

Image 1. Info board with a map guides visitors (Photo: Tuuli Mirola)

Engaging local experts, craftsmen and organizations in the planning and building of recreational areas benefits local communities by offering job opportunities. For instance, the guideposts and signs of Lappeenranta Fortress nature and culture trail came into life by the hands of local blacksmith, illustrator, journalist, and many others (Greenreality 2020). Also volunteer activities such as the donating and planting 350 cherry trees to create a cherry park in Lappeenranta (Pesu, Haverinen & Kivimäki 2021) increase sense of local commitment.

Offering facilities and activities on recreational nature sites

Understanding the visitor profiles helps in designing the sites as designers can make decisions based on how areas would be used and what kind of services are needed to attract and satisfy locals as we as travelers.

Facilities such as toilets, rest spots with tables and benches, lean-to shelters, campfire sites and other facilities ensure leisure and comfortable visits.

Image 2. Resting spot along a trail (Photo: Tuuli Mirola)

Although landscapes, views and natural features are the main attraction of the destinations, especially locals who use the trail more often will appreciate it if there are other activities available in addition to the nature sights. Various seasonal activities add versatility around the year (Mirola 2021).

For example, at Rantaraitti lakeside route in Lappeenranta outdoor exercise facilities such as outdoor gym equipment and fitness stairs are extremely popular among local people and families with children appreciate child-friendly activities such as playgrounds. Dog owners’ interests have also been taken into consideration with fenced-in parks and beaches for dogs.

Activities can be organized for different target groups. For example, the city of Lappeenranta is organizing activities for senior citizens on several recreational sites during summer 2022. These include a bird watching walk in Pappilanniemi nature reserve, a walking tour in the Fortress nature and culture path and a tour in the cherry tree park in Pappila Kirsikkapuisto. Hiking trips guided by a physical-education instructor to Itäinen Rantaraitti and Uus-Lavola Heath path are open for everyone. (Meidän Lappeenranta 2022)

By encouraging local businesses to offer services such as sports equipment rental, the local economy can benefit from activity seeking visitors. If people have been previously using the area for certain activities, it is better to create sustainable and environmentally friendly solutions for these activities rather than forbid them. Dedicated cycling trails are one example of these solutions that also prevent the more delicate terrains from wearing out.

Bringing sites alive with stories

Highlighting the special features or attractions on the destination enhances the visit and turns the trail into a unique experience. Destinations can be made more attractive to visitors by storification (Isomäki 2021). Past events, activities and people related to the site can be used as material to help people imagine what kind of place the area used to be. Local history and stories can smoothly lead visitors through the trail.

Extended reality and virtual applications can be used as practical solutions for storification as shown by Isomäki and Pakarinen (2021). Local legends and tales can be told on story boards on the site or brought alive by using audio guides. Virtual stories enliven events and people, and at the same time they create new reasons to visit the area. Different parties, project partners and residents can work together in preserving local knowledge.

One digitally storified example is Pälkäne Culture Routes in Pirkanmaa region. Four different routes have their own themes and dramatized stories based on true events. (Visit Pälkäne 2020) Another example is the history guide ”Tarinoita rantaraitilta” with its 14 stories in Lappeenranta (Lappeenranta museot). Stories can be accessed via browser, application, or QR codes at the location. Welcome to visit the sites or enjoy the stories at home!

The experiences and examples presented on this article are based on an extensive information research and the benchmarking report (Benabad et al 2021) of nature destinations in Finland as part of the project Kurenniemi – Cultural value of Russia and Finland through M. Agricola trail. The project is co-funded by the European Union.


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Tuuli Mirola, D.Sc.(Tech.) works as a principal lecturer in LAB University of Applied Sciences. She is the project manager in the Kurenniemi – Cultural value of Russia and Finland through M. Agricola trail project.

Illustration: Tuuli Mirola

Published 23.5.2022

Reference to this article

Mirola, T. 2022. Lessons learned for developing urban recreational nature sites. LAB Pro. Cited and date of citation. Available at