Jenny Woodward, 9th April 2020
Our parks and green spaces have rarely received as much attention. As the coronavirus ‘lockdown’ continues in the UK and the spring sun makes an appearance, people are heading to their local green spaces for daily exercise and wellbeing. Government guidance allows for visits to local parks and green spaces, provided social distancing rules are followed; https://www.gov.uk/government/news/coronavirus-guidance-on-access-to-green-spaces
The desire to visit green space is both understandable and logical. A growing body of scientific evidence demonstrates that the health and wellbeing benefits of exposure to green space are substantial and multi-dimensional (Lovell et al., 2018). Perhaps most important, during these times, is the understanding that being in and around natural environments improves mental health by reducing stress, anxiety and depression. Viewing such environments can lead to positive emotions overriding negative thoughts, whilst the tendency for nature to effortlessly hold our attention can suppress negative distractions (Markevych et al., 2018).
Threats to reduce access to parks and green spaces during the coronavirus emergency have led to outrage https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/explainers-52183137. Many commentators in the media and on-line have pointed out that this would disproportionally affect people living in deprived, urban areas with less access to public green space. This visceral, public reaction links closely to the concept of ‘environmental justice’ a social movement that calls for health-giving environmental amenities, such as parks and green space, to be distributed evenly across the population (Boone et al., 2009).
So how does access to greenspace vary according to neighbourhood deprivation? There is no definitive or easy answer to this question – it depends on what measures are used and how green space is defined – plus, accurate, local data is not always available. Some studies do however provide clues (Rigolon, 2016, Mears et al., 2019).
If park proximity (i.e. what proportion of people have a park close to them) is used as a measure, some studies show better access in more deprived neighbourhoods.
If acreage (i.e. the size of the available green space) is used as a measure, it shows that more affluent areas tend to have larger areas of green space than deprived areas. An in-depth study of UK green spaces by CABE (2010) found that the 20% most affluent areas had “five times the amount of parks or general green space (excluding gardens) per person than the most deprived 10% of wards” (p28). Over-crowding of green spaces is more likely therefore in deprived areas, due to the smaller size of the green spaces and the higher population density (Rigolon, 2016, Mears et al., 2019).
Quality of green space also tends to be poorer in more deprived areas. This includes, for example, having fewer facilities, poorer levels of maintenance and perceptions that they are less safe.
My PhD research explores the role of ‘Friends of’ Parks or Green Spaces in deprived urban areas. These groups can dramatically improve the quality of local green spaces by advocating for greater resources, raising funds and helping with maintenance. I have found many shining examples of parks in deprived areas, revitalised by committed ‘Friends of’ Groups. Yet people living in deprived areas can find it hard to set up and run such groups, potentially lacking the skills, the connections and the confidence.
My hope is that the ever-increasing recognition of the importance of local green spaces for health and wellbeing and the knowledge that deprived areas tend to have fewer good quality spaces, will lead to greater commitment and support for these vital assets. This needs to include:
- A commitment to ensuring adequate access to quality green spaces for everyone (for example https://parkscharter.org.uk/)
- Tangible and appropriate support for voluntary and community groups committed to their local green spaces, particularly in more deprived areas
More immediately, I hope that the role of the natural environment in helping people cope with the stresses caused by coronavirus and the ‘lockdown’ is fully appreciated and valued. We really must try our hardest to keep parks and green spaces open, if at all possible, particularly in deprived urban areas.
Boone, C.G., Buckley, G.L., Grove, J.M., Sister, C. (2009) Parks and People: An Environmental Justice Inquiry in Baltimore, Maryland. Annals of the Association of American Geographers.
CABE (2010) Urban Green Nation: Building the Evidence Base
Lovell, R., Depledge, M., & Maxwell, S. (2018). Health and the natural environment: A review of evidence, policy, practice and opportunities for the future (pp. 1–161). Retrieved from http://randd.defra.gov.uk.
Markevych, I., Schoierer, J., Hartig, T., Chudnovsky, A., Hystad, P., Dzhambov, A. M., … Fuertes, E. (2017). Exploring pathways linking greenspace to health: Theoretical and methodological guidance. Environmental Research. Academic Press Inc. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2017.06.028
Mears, M., Brindley, P., Maheswaranb, R., Jorgensen, A. (2019) Understanding the socioeconomic equity of publicly accessible greenspace distribution: The example of Sheffield, UK. Geoforum
Rigolon, A. (2016) A complex landscape of inequity in access to urban parks: A literature review. Landscape and Urban Planning.