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Can access to green spaces reduce health inequalities?

The detrimental impact of urban cities on health has been widely reported in recent years. From increased stress levels to higher rates of circulatory diseases, the health risks of urban cities are becoming more and more prevalent. With the proportion of our population living in urban areas set to increase to 92% in the UK by 2030, this is a very real and immediate issue. At the same time the amount of green spaces in cities is also decreasing – whether through local authorities selling parks or private residents paving over their front gardens. For those living in more deprived urban areas, this impact is even more pressing due to pre-existing health inequalities alongside the reduction of green spaces in the name of development. Green spaces have been shown to have many physical and mental health benefits as well as potentially acting as a buffer for the relationship between deprivation and health inequalities.

Lammas Land in Cambridge is a popular park green space. (Photo Keya Elie)

Impact of green spaces on physical health

The physical health benefits from trees and vegetation in reducing pollutants and improving air and water quality are well documented. Air pollutants have been linked to increased levels of cancer, obesity, heart disease, and dementia. A report by Lelieveld et al. (2019) concluded that the number of excess deaths due to ambient air pollution in Europe is 790,000 people, reducing the average life expectancy by 2.2 years. Through increasing the green spaces and vegetation in a city, more airborne pollutants are absorbed through the leaves, bark, and plant surfaces, curbing pollutants - this can be as simple as low hedges alongside roads. Through similar mechanisms, trees and other vegetation can reduce the volume of waterborne pollutants entering waterways as well as slowing rainwater reaching waterways, thus reducing the risk of flooding (which itself is related to many other health risks).

Impact of green spaces on mental health

There is also a strong relationship between green spaces and quality of life. Ward Thompson, Aspinall, and Roe (2014) undertook two studies examining the relationship between green spaces and health in Scotland and found that nearby green spaces correlated with marked reductions in stress, improvements in self-reported wellbeing, and increased general quality of life. There is also evidence that people’s physical activity increases with more green spaces, a finding which is important when considering that 1 in 15 deaths across Europe is due to a lack of physical activity (Ekelund et al., 2015). Communities only in the immediate proximity of green spaces experience these health benefits, however, and there is a strong negative correlation between deprivation and green spaces (Bixby et al., 2015). This means that those in the most deprived areas of a city, with the most health inequality, have the least access to green spaces.

Green spaces as a buffer against inequality

With pre-existing relationships between deprivation and health inequalities, increasing the amount of green spaces can act as a buffer against inequality. Introducing and improving the maintenance of green spaces such as woodlands in deprived communities has shown to be successful in not only increasing physical exercise, but also improving one’s perceived quality of life ( Ward Thompson, Roe, and Aspinall, 2013). This asks us to look beyond the physical health benefits, but to the impact of green infrastructure on mental health and stress. Further, park green spaces within walking distance can mitigate the impact of socioeconomic status-related health inequalities (Wang and Lin, 2019). The rate of diseases linked with socioeconomic status (such as cardiomyopathy, chronic pneumonia, and hypertension) decrease with more accessible park green spaces. Therefore, there are benefits from green spaces which are most experienced by those in more deprived areas, and yet it is these neighbourhoods who have the least access to green spaces.

Need for more green spaces

The health benefits to all from an increase in green spaces are clear. Green spaces benefit planetary health through absorption of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas contributing to climate change, but this is only the beginning of the health benefits of green spaces. The mental and physical health benefits are felt across all communities, but this benefit is more significant in deprived areas. In these communities, green spaces help to mitigate diseases related to socio-economic status demonstrating the potential of parks, low hedges, and woodland. For these benefits to be realised, policy needs to prioritise green infrastructure in land use planning to reduce health inequalities. Green spaces have many benefits for local and global communities and so action by local authorities and individuals to prioritise green spaces will make a significant improvement in the quality of life, wellbeing, physical health, and physical activity of communities worldwide.

Sophie Baldwin is a final year Sociology undergraduate with an interest in impact of climate change and the environment on health.

Reference links

  1. Lelieveld et al. (2019) https://academic.oup.com/eurheartj/article/40/20/1590/5372326

  2. Ward Thompson, Aspinall, and Roe. (2014) https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042814054780

  3. Ekelund et al. (2015) - https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273153211_Physical_activity_and_all-cause_mortality_across_levels_of_overall_and_abdominal_adiposity_in_European_men_and_women_The_European_Prospective_Investigation_into_Cancer_and_Nutrition_Study_EPIC

  4. Bixby et al. (2015) -- https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0119495

  5. Thompson, Roe, and Aspinall (2013) - https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169204613000224

  6. Wang and Lan (2019) - https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264837718316545

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