How long does it take you to walk to the nearest park, woodland, lake or river? If it takes more than 15 minutes, according to the UK government’s new environmental improvement plan for England, something needs to be done about it. It says 38% of people in England do not have a green or blue space within a 15-minute walk of their home.
The plan promises “a new and ambitious commitment to work across government and beyond” to provide access to local green and blue spaces. He recognizes the importance of connecting with nature, and that time spent outdoors is good for physical and mental health.
That’s a message researchers have been pushing for years, as a recent evidence review shows, and it’s been amplified by COVID-19, which has highlighted the importance of local green and blue spaces for well-being.
But the plan’s laudable ambitions ignore the ways in which our experiences of the outdoors are shaped by the privileges of wealth and health.
If you live in a disadvantaged area, your local green space may be further away from your home, or you may have to share it with more people. As the campaign group Fields in Trust pointed out in a report in 2022, this is a question of justice.
However, there is more to justice than how much space you have to share with others, or how long it takes you to get there. It’s also about how you feel and what you can do when you get there.
My own research highlights some key questions we need to ask if we are to protect and enhance our green spaces for future generations. Questions like “Do I feel welcome here?” “Does this space meet my needs?” or “Do I have a say in how he is cared for?” emphasize the fact that access is a matter of equality and democracy.
Some green spaces are greener than others
There are three main aspects of green and blue spaces that should be considered, and invested in, if the environmental improvement plan is to be more than wishful thinking.
First of all, not all green and blue spaces are the same or provide the same benefits. The qualities of a football pitch are very different from those provided by a woodland walk along a stream.
Taken together as “green and blue spaces” the need for a variety of easily accessible spaces is seen to meet local people’s physical and mental well-being needs.
Second, not all spaces are cared for equally. Illegally disposed spaces or associated with anti-social activities can be intimidating, especially after dark.
Green and blue spaces in disadvantaged areas require more care, which requires time and money. As Public Health England has noted, access to quality green spaces is worse in disadvantaged areas.
Thirdly, being in a space does not necessarily have to offer you all the benefits that a space might have. For people suffering from anxiety or depression, for example, more structured activities may be more helpful.
This could include time spent on rivers or allotments as part of the government’s pilot plan to tackle mental health by prescribing time in nature.
Be like Birmingham
In Birmingham, the local authority is not content to overstate the merits of its 600 parks. Instead, the city has developed a nature city plan (I was part of a team that evaluated it).
At the heart of his approach is the idea of environmental justice, which he defines as “the equal treatment and meaningful participation of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, in the development, implementation and enforcement of the environment. laws, regulations, and policies”.
To apply environmental justice to the city’s green spaces, Birmingham Council has assessed each of its 69 electoral wards for access to green space of two hectares (about three football pitches) or more within 1,000 meters, as well as flood risk, urban heat. island effects, health inequality and deprivation.
Through this work, he identified 13 of the 69 wards most in need of investment to achieve a new “standard of fair parks”. These central areas mainly have less accessible green space, are more vulnerable to flooding and urban warming, and are more deprived.
Starting with a pilot program in Bordesley & Highgate Ward (location of the BBC series Peaky Blinders), the plan is then to invest in five other priority areas in central and east Birmingham: Balsall Heath West, Nechells, Gravelly Hill, Pype Hayes and Vale Castle.
This is the kind of approach that could lead to investment in many other cities. It links funding with equality and brings together climate change, public health and community issues. It shows that quality and equity cannot be brought up to the distance between your house and the nearest park.
The challenge now is to learn from Birmingham’s pioneering approach and apply similar principles elsewhere. At its best, this work can be used to highlight the challenges of applying resources equitably, but to ensure that the resources are there in the first place, an issue with which the environmental impact plan quite predictable.
This article from The Conversation is republished under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Julian Dobson and his colleagues received funding from the National Trust and the National Lottery Heritage Fund to evaluate the Park of the Future Accelerator programme. The views expressed here are those of the author.