Building Nature: Addressing the Social Inequalities of Urban Green Space Access
Stepping outside and enjoying all aspects of the natural world is something many of us take for granted. If we are outside, we spend time staring down at our smartphones to scroll mindlessly through social media or message friends and family. While being in touch with loved ones is beneficial, isn’t it just as important to enjoy nature and all it has to offer?
Major cities worldwide are focused on developing urban green spaces (UGS) for their residents. These areas can provide much-needed benefits to city communities, but unfortunately, not every group of citizens has equal access to them.
Learn more about the benefits of UGS, the social inequalities associated with access to them and how cities can make them available to all.
Understanding the Benefits and Importance of Urban Green Space
As our world becomes increasingly digital, technologically advanced and interconnected, the number of opportunities for people to connect with their outdoor environments decreases.
For example, consider the rapid shift to remote work brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Members of the home-based American workforce can stay in their apartments or homes for long periods. Is this a positive or negative societal change?
There’s significant value in spending time outdoors. A growing amount of evidence suggests time outdoors can directly impact our physical and mental well-being.
Here are some of the crucial mental benefits of time spent in nature, according to the American Psychological Association (APA):
- Cognitive benefits, such as improved attentional functioning and memory
- Recuperative sounds of nature
- Improved mood
- Increased happiness and decreased mental stress
- Reduced risk of children developing psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, eating problems, depression and substance use
- Buffered effects of loneliness or social isolation
Other benefits exist, but this list shows how connecting with nature can help overall mental health. Here are some of the physical benefits associated with time spent in UGS, based on a brief from the World Health Organization (WHO):
- Encourages a healthy lifestyle
- Supports physical activities and space to play sports
- Helps people engage in social interactions
- Reduces environmental health risks like air and noise pollution
- Improves functioning of the immune system
- Lowers rates of heart disease
- Decreases mortality rates in older adults
Because of these benefits, cities must ensure residents have equal access to urban spaces. For example, city leaders can work with key stakeholders to incorporate parks and forests into designs, increase the groundwater supply or implement other important aspects of green architecture.
Social Inequalities in Access to Urban Green Space
Some cities are struggling to overcome social inequalities associated with access to urban spaces. Unfortunately, not all populations can easily access UGS.
In European countries, a mounting body of research provides evidence that UGS are unevenly distributed across cities and tend to exist in affluent neighborhoods. There are a few case studies in Europe covering UGS trends in cities, such as:
- Stockholm, Sweden
- Lodz, Poland
- Porto, Portugal
- The Netherlands
- Debrecen, Hungary
For example, an article in Frontiers in Environmental Science suggests some groups of people in the Netherlands are excluded from UGS access. These groups include women, children, immigrants, ethnic minorities, the elderly, people with psychological issues or disabilities, and individuals from underprivileged neighborhoods.
These inequalities in accessing UGS might not occur in every city in the world, but they have far-reaching, negative implications for those who fall under these categories.
The article discusses relevant research about UGS in the Netherlands. Several studies show lower socioeconomic neighborhoods or areas with a high percentage of immigrants have fewer and lower-quality UGS than in other communities. Additionally, these marginalized groups experience poor environmental conditions, such as polluted air, contaminated water and high risks of hazards.
How Urban Greening Promotes Inclusion and Enhances Social Equity
The number of people living in urban areas will increase dramatically in the coming years. According to Statista, approximately 58.3% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2025. As more people urbanize, cities must increase their accessibility to UGS to promote physical and mental well-being for residents. Here’s how they can achieve this.
Assess How Various Groups Access UGS
How can cities make meaningful changes to their UGS without assessing the communities near them? In other words, city leaders and professionals must make informed decisions by evaluating the groups often excluded from UGS.
Assessments can take the form of surveys, looking at census records and even canvassing a local area. From there, city planners can determine if the region and its residents would benefit from UGS.
Prioritize Including People in Vulnerable Populations
Once policymakers and city leaders assess various regions, they can ensure UGS development is a top priority in areas housing members of vulnerable populations.
For example, they can construct a community garden in areas with a high population of older adults or build a park in low-income neighborhoods. These efforts will help cities overcome the social inequalities regarding access to UGS.
Involve Residents in Community Development Education and Activities
Cities can spend time including vulnerable populations in community events to educate them about the benefits of UGS and participate in various outdoor activities.
Residents feel a sense of ownership when cities involve the local community in a new project, promoting more widespread use. Including older adults, women, children, people with physical or mental disabilities, and other excluded groups can help increase usage and access to UGS in cities.
Improving UGS Access for All City Residents
There are many benefits of USG in cities. Take New York City, for example. It’s commonly referred to as “the concrete jungle” due to a lack of green areas like parks, gardens, open landscapes and other UGS.
City officials can use some of the tips outlined above to increase access to UGS for people in vulnerable areas and populations. This issue will continue to negatively impact certain groups and perpetuate social inequality as more people urbanize.
Cities should take active steps to improve urban green space access and provide all residents with opportunities to connect with nature. That will make urban life much more enjoyable for all who live there.