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Study: Access to urban green spaces favor the rich, educated

"For many people, the trees in their neighborhood are their first contact with nature," said researcher Lorien Nesbitt.

By
Brooks Hays
Urban planners can use pocket parks to fit green spaces into small spaces. Photo by Lorien Nesbitt/UBC
Urban planners can use pocket parks to fit green spaces into small spaces. Photo by Lorien Nesbitt/UBC

Jan. 17 (UPI) -- Research has shown urban green spaces offer a range of human health benefits. They improve air quality, moderate temperatures and boost mental health -- just to name a few.

But a new study suggests the benefits provided by urban green spaces aren't shared equally. That's because access is skewed in the favor of those with greater incomes and higher levels of education.

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Researchers at the University of British Columbia surveyed aerial photographs of urban green spaces in 10 major American cities. When they compared the distribution of green space with socioeconomic indicators in urban neighborhoods -- income, education and racial background -- they found residents in wealthier neighborhoods had greater access to green space.

"Vegetation keeps our cities cool, improves air quality, reduces storm water runoff and reduces stress -- it makes a huge difference in citizens' well-being," Lorien Nesbitt, a postdoctoral research and teaching fellow in UBC's department of forest resources management, said in a news release. "The issue is that when access to greenery isn't equitable, those benefits aren't always fairly distributed, reducing access for our most marginalized citizens who need them most."

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The new analysis, published this week in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, showed access to parks are shared more equitably than forested acreage.

"For most cities, the more income and education you had, the more access you had to mixed or woody vegetation," said Nesbitt.

Different cities featured different degrees of correlation. In some cities, higher education was more closely tied to access to green space. In other cities, income was the predominant predictive factor.

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"In larger cities like Chicago and New York, racial and ethnic factors played an important role as well," said Nesbitt. "People from Hispanic backgrounds had less access to vegetation in Chicago and Seattle, while people identifying as African-American had less access to green spaces in Chicago and St. Louis. Those identifying as Asian-American had less access in New York."

Though large parks with trees and green vegetation provide a multitude of positive impacts on city residents, smaller green spaces can have important benefits, too. Researchers argue disparities in green space access can be addressed by encouraging tree-lined streets and the construction of pocket parks.

"For many people, the trees in their neighborhood are their first contact with nature -- maybe even the only contact, for those who have less opportunity to travel to natural spaces outside of the city," said Nesbitt. "As the effects of climate change intensify, we should plan for more urban green spaces and ensure that citizens from all backgrounds can access them readily and equitably."

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