The Values and Shortcomings of Green Spaces in Urban Environments
2020 marks Golden Gate Park’s 150th anniversary. In honor of my favorite place in San Francisco turning 150, this post will discuss the vast mental and physical health benefits urban green spaces provide for those who have access to them, as well as some of the inequalities inherent in urban green spaces. As the world’s population continues to increase drastically each year, and more people migrate to or are born in large cities, urban green spaces provide a much-needed respite from the hustle and bustle of daily urban living. The United Nations predicts that 68% of the global population will live in urban areas by 2050 (UN DESA, 2018). This continual growth of cities and urban sprawl may mean that in the near future, some people’s only access to “nature” will be in urban green spaces. Thus, understanding the benefits of these spaces will allow us to utilize them to their full potential. Urban green spaces can be defined as “those that make contributions to the ecological, aesthetic or public health needs of the urban environment” (Taylor & Hochuli, 2017, p. 31). They include parks, community gardens, hiking trails, sporting fields, and riparian areas such as streams and are highly beneficial both to cities that invest in them and the citizens who utilize them (Wolch, Byrne, and Newell, 2014). On a city level, they provide valuable ecosystem services, and for citizens, utilization of green spaces can lead to physical, mental, and social health benefits. Unfortunately, the many benefits of these spaces are not always evenly distributed amongst citizens. In many cities, access to urban green space is unequal along racial and socioeconomic lines. Urban green spaces have also been shown to lead to negative externalities on citizens, particularly those of lower socioeconomic status. They can raise property values and catalyze the process of gentrification (Banzhaf & McCormick, 2006; Wolch et al., 2014). When implementing new developments such as urban green spaces, cities should consider equity regarding access to and utilization of these spaces.
Evidence of the positive effects of green spaces regarding both the benefits they accrue to cities and to human physical, mental, and social health is well established. In terms of benefits to cities, scholars have found that urban green spaces provide valuable ecosystem services which can improve air quality, reduce pollution, sequester carbon, provide shade, noise reduction, erosion control, and water filtration, among others (Bolund & Hunhammar, 1999; Escobedo, Kroeger, & Wagner, 2011). All of these benefits make the implementation of green spaces attractive to city officials. However, it is important to note that these benefits are localized to the location of the green space and also vary depending on the type of green space present, therefore not benefiting all of the citizens in any given city equally (Escobedo, Kroeger, & Wagner, 2011).
Physical health benefits from urban green spaces are often a result of residents spending more time interacting with the outdoors and engaging in recreational activities like biking, running, or going on nature walks (Groenewegen, Van den Berg, De Vries, & Verheij, 2006). These benefits are not inherent to the green spaces themselves as people must apply themselves and have the access and desire to partake in these activities. Furthermore, these benefits are directly related to how much time is spent in these spaces and who is able to access them (Groenewegen et al., 2006). Social health benefits can also result from access to green space. Green spaces may serve as a meeting space, which leads to stronger social ties and social cohesion within a community (ibid.). In a study on attitudes towards green spaces in England, it was found that interviewees believed that when available to everyone, green space can serve to break down social barriers in cities and bring people closer together (Bell, 2005). However, this posits that the space is available or accessible to everyone, which is not always the case. Urban green spaces have also been shown to produce mental health benefits for those that use them. Various studies have indicated that green spaces decrease stress, balance emotional states, and increase perceived levels of safety, among other benefits (Lee, & Maheswaran, 2011; Aerts, Honnay, & Van Nieuwenhuyse, 2018; Wood, Hooper, Foster, & Bull, 2017). Benefits can vary depending on the biodiversity present in the green space (Aerts, Honnay, & Van Nieuwenhuyse, 2018), the size of the green space, and also the proximity to households (Lee, & Maheswaran, 2011). This is indicative of a lack of access to certain groups, as some households are bound to be closer than others, and illustrates that the many benefits of green space in every city will be distributed differently according to the number and size of green spaces as well as which groups live in the households in closest proximity.
Although green spaces provide great benefits to cities and the citizens that use them, access to these spaces and their benefits are not equally distributed. Furthermore, there are unintended consequences the creation of these spaces can have on certain communities in cities. Access to green spaces is an environmental justice issue, as minority communities and those of lower socioeconomic status have the most limited access and are most negatively affected by their creation. A case study in Atlanta, Georgia found that socioeconomically depressed groups had a lack of access to the city’s green spaces (Dai, 2011). Even among inner-city residents, those who were wealthier had the option to drive to a public green space or pay for membership to a private one such as a golf course, highlighting the disparity (ibid.). These findings are supported by another study of the distribution of parks in the Los Angeles area which indicated the existence of an “inequitable distribution [of parks] that disproportionately impacts poor people of color” (Sister, Wolch, & Wilson, 2010). This was due to high retail prices of homes near parks as well as additional factors such as lack of private backyards or access to only unsafe parks (ibid.). A study of residential housing prices in relation to green space found that, in most cases, the closer a property was to a public green space, the higher the cost would be (McCord et al., 2014). This illustrates a factor that may have a strong influence on access to green spaces in that the closer and more easily accessible these spaces are, the less affordable it is to live near them. The cleaning up and conversion of locally unwanted land use or brownfields to urban green spaces also increase nearby property values and create areas that are prone to gentrification, putting pressure on minority or low-income neighborhoods. However, this is not to say that green spaces are always harmful to low income or minority communities. There is also a focus on how “collaborations between local government and disparate community groups, and a willingness of local stakeholders to contest powerful real estate interests and mainstream environmental advocates” can lead to a delicate but successful balance between green spaces and gentrification (Wolch et al., 2014, p. 241). Although gentrification can result from urban green space, it is not an inevitability. By making neighborhoods “just green enough,” cities can utilize green spaces to benefit citizens while also maintaining a level of equity in this process. This may mean cleaning up harmful environmental land uses without additional new developments that attract wealthier people and drive prices up (Curran & Hamilton, 2012).
Clearly, green spaces provide a great service and benefit to both the city which invests in them and the people who use them. However, it is important to acknowledge the harm done to communities by establishing these spaces and unequal access that can prevent those who need the benefits most from receiving them. Luckily, here in San Francisco, we have achieved a monumental goal of having all residents located within a 10-minute walk from the nearest green space (Trust for Public Land, 2019). Thus, no matter where in the city you are, you can access a green space, albeit of varying quality. When building sustainable cities for the future, green spaces play a vital role. However, it is necessary to acknowledge the shortcomings in current green spaces that cities like San Francisco are trying to address in order to make the benefits of these spaces available to all.
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