Alliance for Community Trees News

Green Space, Human Health, and Social Justice

By Conni Kunzler | January 29, 2018

Source: Jennifer Moore Myers and Kiley Coates, “Green Space, Human Health, and Social Justice,” CompassLive; Jennings, Viniece; Floyd, Myron F.; Shanahan, Danielle; Coutts, Christopher; Sinykin, Alex, “Emerging issues in urban ecology: implications for research, social justice, human health, and well-being,” Population and Environment

Washington, DC (January 25, 2018) – Urban green spaces like parks, urban forests, and greenways are often not equally available to everyone. New U.S. Forest Service research looks at these issues as they relate to factors such as income, race and socioeconomic status.

Existing research has described the benefits of urban green space on environmental conditions like stormwater management and heat hazard reduction. New research has extended that work to include physical activity, social cohesion, and stress reduction.

“My research focuses on the nexus between urban nature, social justice, and health as it relates to factors such as income, race, and socioeconomic status,” says U.S. Forest service biological scientist Viniece Jennings.

In many urban areas, population growth and development are projected to continue. This will put greater demands on existing – or shrinking – green space over the coming decades.

Jennings and her colleagues are working to understand who benefits from green space — and perhaps more importantly, who doesn’t. And if urban green space is lost, are some neighborhoods impacted in disproportionately negative ways?

To explore this topic, the scientists reviewed studies that focused on emerging issues in urban ecology and connected different types of urban green spaces and human health. Their review article was published in Population and Environment.

Multiple studies in the article found that parks and other public green spaces are often less available in neighborhoods with lower socioeconomic status or a high proportion of African American or Hispanic residents.

It also cites studies documenting that discriminatory zoning policies have led to social and economic segregation, which can contribute to environmental hazards such as pollution in low-income neighborhoods.

These observations can vary by the quality, location, and type of green space, along with the health outcome. For example, it can be difficult to tell whether exposure to green space and its amenities improves health and well-being or if healthy people tend to seek out neighborhoods with these conditions.

“These studies point out a social inequality in green space and the benefits it provides for residents,” adds Jennings. “Inequitable access to green space may be related to disparities in cardiovascular health, heat-related illness, obesity, and psychological well-being.”

The review noted that green space initiatives can increase property values but can also lead to concerns about gentrification. Urban residents may not be aware of the positive effects of tree cover — and sometimes even remove trees due to fears of storm damage or concerns about public safety.

Fully engaging local communities about green space designs and access can help all residents benefit from these public investments.

The article highlighted findings that suggest urban planners and decision-makers can re-balance their cost-benefit analyses when it comes to green space. Adding in potential health benefits — rather than aesthetic benefits alone — might tip the scales toward more green space or green infrastructure.

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