ORVal – The Outdoor Recreation Valuation Tool

Logo: University of Exeter

Brett Day – Professor of Environmental Economics. LEEP, Business School, University of Exeter

Greg Smith – Research Fellow. LEEP, Business School, University of Exeter

The British love ‘the outdoors’. On a sunny spring day you will find us in our hundreds of thousands setting off with the dog to the local park, pulling on our walking boots to go hiking in the countryside or packing the back of the car with a picnic for the beach. In fact MENE, the national survey carried out by Natural England each year, suggests that over 2.5 billion such trips are taken by residents of England every year.

That the countryside and its environment provide a much-loved resource is beyond dispute, though until recently making a case for enhancing that recreational asset has been hampered by an inability to accurately identify the value that the public put on such enhancements. The Outdoor Recreation Valuation (ORVal) Tool has been developed by the Land Environment, Economics and Policy (LEEP) institute at the University of Exeter in order to provide just such evidence.

Screenshot from ORVal: - ORVal Visitor Origin, Shipley, Yorkshire
Screenshot from ORVal: - ORVal Visitor Origin, Shipley, Yorkshire

ORVal began life some 10 years ago as part of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment project, an ambitious cross-disciplinary initiative that attempted to understand the range of benefits provided by the environment. LEEP took on the task of assessing the benefit flows from recreation. To do that, the research team first developed a uniquely detailed map of paths, parks and beaches open to the public for recreation and collated details of the sorts of facilities and environments that a visitor might enjoy at each location. The core data on how people used those recreational sites was drawn from the MENE survey. The MENE data allowed the research team to build a model that explained individuals’ choices of recreational activity. This ORVal model predicted how frequently individuals with different characteristics might choose to take an outdoor recreation trip and then which of the various sites in their vicinity they might then visit.

Noting how useful the model’s outputs might be to decision makers, in 2016 Defra began work with LEEP to develop an online tool which would allow government, businesses and the public access to the model in order to answer their own questions about values from outdoor recreation.

Screenshot from ORVal: - ORVal Explore, South Devon
Screenshot from ORVal: - ORVal Explore, South Devon

After a number of years of hard work the ORVal Tool was released (accessed at: The tool provides a simple interactive interface through which users can explore a map and examine information on the characteristics, predicted visits and values commanded by the thousands of different recreation sites across England and Wales. Perhaps more importantly, the tool allows users to examine how visits and values might change if a site’s characteristics were to change. Likewise the tool can be used to predict the value of visits that might be generated by a new site established in some particular location. The tool’s strength lies in the sophistication of the modelling that sits behind the website, making predictions that account for literally hundreds of factors from the age and socioeconomic composition of people living in each area of the country to the quantity and qualities of the environment available at each site.

The tool should, of course, be used with some caution. Its outputs are ‘best guesses’ based on a model developed from the observed behaviour of hundreds of thousands of actual visitors. The outputs are designed to be of use where detailed local information is not available. Also users should be aware that the estimates are for day trips by adults. Tourist or overnight trips are not included nor are those by children under the age of 16. All the same, ORVal is a substantial step forward in the provision of tools for the valuation of services from the environment. Indeed, HM Treasury features ORVal in their latest guidance on appraising policies and projects (the Green Book) where ORVal is explicitly recommended as being relevant “for national and local appraisals where outdoor recreational opportunities are likely to be affected.”

And what is the value of outdoor recreation? Well ORVal estimates that the residents of England and Wales enjoy over £9 billion of value a year from being able to access the outdoors.

First published in CJS Focus on Recreation in association with Outdoor Recreation Network 20 May 2019

More on: