Access to green space is a question of justice, not just distance

by Julian Dobson

How long does it take you to walk to your nearest park or green space? If it takes more than ten minutes, according to the charity Fields in Trust, you’re missing out: 2.8 million people in Great Britain don’t have a green space within a ten-minute walk of their home.

If you live in a disadvantaged area, your local green space may be further away from your home, or you might have to share it with more people. As Fields in Trust points out, this is a question of justice.

But there’s more to justice than the amount of space you have to share with others, or how long it takes you to get there. Fields in Trust’s newly updated Green Space Index rightly directs attention to these fundamental issues of access. But it’s not just about being able to get to a space. Access also includes how you feel and what you can do when you get there.

My own research with colleagues at CRESR and the University of Sheffield highlights several other questions we need to ask if we’re to protect and improve our green spaces for future generations. Questions such as ‘do I feel welcome here?’; ‘does this space meet my needs?’; ‘do I get a say in how it is looked after?’ highlight the fact that access is a matter of equality and democracy.

Our research spans issues such as the mental health benefits of urban green spaces (Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature); the significant existing evidence base on the social benefits of green space (Space to Thrive) and how targeted investment can benefit communities (Parks for People); the potential for green spaces to complement NHS prescribing (Green Social Prescribing); and the challenges of securing long-term funding (Future Parks Accelerator). 

What should be good news for policymakers is that whatever your agenda, green spaces can play a part. If the challenge is adapting to climate change, our urban parks and woodlands absorb carbon and cool down cities. If the challenge is mental health, we know green spaces have important effects on wellbeing – as demonstrated during the Covid-19 pandemic. If you’re concerned about physical activity, green spaces support an active lifestyle.

In less positive news, the multiple benefits of green spaces often mean that investment and care is seen as someone else’s problem. It’s a process we’ve referred to as ‘logics of inaction’; we all know green spaces are good for us, but it’s often someone else (the NHS, another council department, or individual park users) that is asked to take responsibility.

In the meantime, lack of investment continues to undermine the potential of our green spaces. In the Levelling Up White Paper the government promises to ‘radically expand investment in parks’; this radicalism turns out to be a £30m sticking plaster to refurbish thirty parks nationwide. To put that in context, there are nearly 600 parks in Birmingham alone. If the £30m fund is divided between 30 local authorities, more than 90 per cent of councils in England will miss out.

We are no nearer a sustainable future for funding urban green spaces than we were in 2017 when the House of Commons communities and local government select committee declared that parks were ‘at a tipping point of decline’. But some important new thinking is emerging.

In Birmingham, the local authority isn’t content with trumpeting the merits of its 600 parks. Birmingham is one of the pilot places for the Future Parks Accelerator, and as part of that scheme has developed a City of Nature Plan, approved by the council’s cabinet in February this year. At the heart of its approach is the idea of environmental justice, which it defines as ‘the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, colour, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.’

To apply environmental justice to the city’s green spaces, Birmingham Council has assessed each electoral ward in terms of access to green space of 2 hectares or more within 1,000 metres; flood risk; urban heat island effects; health inequalities; and the indices of multiple deprivation. Through this work it has identified which wards are most in need of investment to reach a new ‘fair parks standard’. The approach is being trialled in the Bordesley and Highgate ward and will be expanded to five more wards over the next five years: Balsall Heath West, Nechells, Gravelly Hill, Pype Hayes and Castle Vale.

This is a serious and carefully constructed approach that could guide investment in many other cities, and has the potential to resolve the bickering between parochial interests that often dominates discussions on where limited resources should be invested. It links investment with equalities and brings together climate change, public health and community issues. It shows that quality and equity can’t just be boiled down to the distance between your home and the nearest park.

There’s more to be done, though: plans for ‘biodiversity net gain’ and ‘nature recovery’ need to genuinely engage with the ways in which we share our natural spaces with other species, and how the needs of humans and the more-than-human world can be better balanced for the good of all. There is always a risk that nature recovery ends up as a new kind of greenwashing.  

The challenge now is to learn from Birmingham’s pioneering approach and apply similar principles elsewhere – and to use this work to highlight the continuing challenges not only of applying resources equitably, but of ensuring the resources are there in the first place.

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