Access to green space should be a human right. Here’s why.
A walk in the park. A breeze. It’s what we say when something’s effortless. An activity so easy we could do it without thinking – and probably with some enjoyment. But in 2021, how simple really is it to take a stroll in nature? With urban areas growing, green spaces diminishing and social inequalities deepening, it feels like a good time to take a closer look at how and why the most natural things in life don’t always come so easy.
The human race underwent a historic shift in the past decade. After thousands of years living as a majority rural species, we entered a new age. Now, more people live in urban areas than any other type of environment, with scientists predicting that 68 percent of us will live in a city by 2050. While that might not sound like a problem in itself, we only need to look at the two most urgent crises of our generation to understand the potentially damaging impact of this lifestyle shift.
The urban jungles that form our cities are huge contributors to the gradual – but by no means undramatic – change in our global climate. They consume more than three quarters of the world’s energy, producing over 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and triggering a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect. Ever wondered why London’s temperature always rises further than areas outside the capital? That’s the effect at work – high temperatures driven by people, transport, shops and industry, trapped by urban locations’ abundance of narrow structures. This heat not only plays a role in global warming due to the resulting increased demand on electricity, it also negatively impacts human health – contributing to breathing problems, heart-related mortality and exhaustion.
It might be a bleak picture, but it’s not a world beyond all hope. When Covid-19 became the second greatest emergency for a generation, many of us began to realise the true value of getting outside. Green spaces became a new kind of solace, sacred ground where we could step, directionless but free from the four walls of our flats, studios, houses, home offices. When we felt too trapped to move – like lockdown might stretch forever into an abyss of meaningless days and recycled air – we did laps of the local park, sat on a verge next to three lanes of traffic and felt like we’d won the lottery if we were lucky enough to have a garden.
It felt good. Or at least, if felt less bad. And when you think about it, that makes sense. Our species has existed for some 300,000 years, but the oldest cities on earth are only around 6,000 years old. There’s even a theory that nature makes us feel good because it’s the environment in which our brains evolved – and whether that’s true or not, there are certainly some incredible benefits to having access to green space.
Research has shown that regular access to nature has a positive impact on depression, anxiety and mood disorder, as well as an ability to improve sleep, lower stress, boost happiness and help people find meaning in their lives. If that wasn’t enough, spending time in green environments is also proven to enhance attention, memory and creativity. The evidence is so strong that doctors in the Shetland Islands have started prescribing nature-based activities to treat both physiological and psychological illnesses.
Vegetation growing in urban areas can absorb fossil fuel pollutants and decrease noise pollution – studies have even shown that simply having a view of nature from your home can reduce the perception of noise, making living more comfortable and lowering stress levels. More green space also makes socialising easier, reducing loneliness and helping communities to thrive. And to put numbers on it, we know that frequent personal use of parks is worth more than £30 billion a year to the UK population – which translates into estimated annual savings of at least £100 million for the NHS thanks to fewer GP visits.
Despite this, the fact remains that not everyone has access to the life-enhancing effects of green spaces. Around three quarters of the European population lives in urban areas. Nine million people die every year as a direct result of pollution, and the most socio-economically deprived often face the biggest barriers to nature. And there’s clear evidence that this lack of access is deepening the inequalities already prevalent in our society. One study showed that while there was no connection between life expectancy and income for those living in rural areas, in urban areas, those on lowest incomes were expected to live 10 years less than those on highest.
So what’s the solution? Creating more green spaces in our cities might seem like an obvious fix, and in some ways it is – a recent study in Toronto found that adding 10 trees to a city block had an impact on people’s perceptions of their wellbeing equivalent to the effect of earning £10,000 more per household. But it’s not always that simple. When a new park arrives in a city, the area becomes more desirable, house prices rise and current residents are often ‘priced out’ – forced to find somewhere else to go amid an effect known as green gentrification.
If new green infrastructure is to be universally effective for the communities it’s part of, people must be at the heart of its planning and implementation. By using data wisely and taking time to respond to individual local, cultural and geographical contexts, governments can begin to build the kind of high quality green spaces that truly offer value to those who need them. That means recognising the importance of urban nature that everyone can benefit from, and making an effort to create parks that are accessible, non-commercial and inclusive.
Here in Leeds, where footfall was down by two thirds at the peak of the pandemic, it’s clearer than ever that the role of the city centre has shifted. There’s a demand for more democratised leisure spaces – places with a focus on diversity and culture and without the pressure to spend money. Thanks to a £10 million investment scheme, plans are already underway for the 6,700 square metre Aire Park, as well as a revamp of roads and public spaces at Meadow Lane, Crown Point Road and Sovereign Street. The scheme, dubbed ‘green to grey’ by Leeds City Council, aims to unlock big commercial and residential development – but its crucial by-product? A universal sense of community – an energy that makes sure everyone can benefit and no one loses out – and for that, we bait our breath.
Macro infrastructure plans might be out of most of our control, but as we watch them unfold, there are things we can all do to help green spaces flourish in the city. For future urban developments to be successful, we need a linked up approach – but also one that welcomes every contribution and acknowledges the vitality of green spaces, however small, and their combined effect. Green roofs, wall gardens, window boxes and community gardens can all add to the joined-up effect of green space in our city.
Access to nature is a human right. Without it, we lose focus, our health suffers, societal inequalities widen and our planet grows less habitable. A truly sustainable future is possible, but to get there, we must recognise the positive impact of green spaces and commit to bringing them alive for all members of society.