The future of the left since 1884

Breathing space

The pandemic has shown just how vital parks and green spaces are for our wellbeing. Yet we are not sharing them fairly, as Meredith Whitten explains.


Long read

Our systems and institutions allow for complex, interconnected inequalities to persist, as exposed by this year’s health crisis. To rebuild a more equal Britain, what meaningful, structural changes are needed? The Fabian Review asks authors for their demands.

Despite a cultural proclivity for the countryside, the British are urban people. Eighty-three per cent of the population lives in urban areas, the highest in the OECD. Urban design and planning decisions shape our daily lives and have a big impact on our health and wellbeing. Local road networks can increase air and noise pollution. Transport connections affect the ability to commute to work, school, social networks and health services. Both indoor and outdoor public spaces foster interaction with others and combat social isolation. And green spaces provide sites for exercise and relaxation.

The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown have highlighted how critical access to nearby high-quality green space is for urban dwellers. Green spaces provide a place for physical activity, which is vital for preventing chronic diseases, such as diabetes and obesity, and for improving mental health. These spaces mitigate environmental harms – reducing air and noise pollution, the risk of flooding and the urban heat island. And they offer an opportunity to relax and destress, connect with nature, and interact with others, thus strengthening a sense of belonging and reducing loneliness.

Yet, urban green space is not shared fairly. Many neighbourhoods across the UK lack access to the extensive benefits it provides. An estimated 2.6 million Britons live more than a 10-minute walk from green space. Twelve per cent of households had no access to a private or shared garden during lockdown. This is more acute in urban areas – 20 per cent of Londoners lack a garden – and for low and unskilled workers and black and minority ethnic (BAME) people. BAME residents are more likely to live in areas lacking access to open space and nature and were more affected by park and green space closures during the lockdown.

People living in the most deprived neighbourhoods die younger, spend more time in ill health and are more exposed to harmful environmental conditions than those in the least deprived neighbourhoods. Economically deprived neighbourhoods have fewer accessible quality public green spaces. Residents in these areas are more likely to experience poorer health outcomes than those who live in green environments – disparities in green space access have been linked to obesity, longevity and mental health. Research shows health inequalities are halved in greener areas.

Yet, while the pandemic has highlighted inequalities in access to urban nature, green spaces cannot be disentangled from the broader context in which they exist. Because green spaces have long been seen as refuges from the stress of urban life, they are often considered as detached from the city around them. Their status as a discretionary service provided primarily by local authorities reflects this: green space is seen as nice to have, but not essential for urban life.

An administratively and disciplinarily siloed approach to urban design and planning compounds this conceptualisation. Healthy environments depend on an intricate interplay of a range of design elements. Yet design and planning often occur in a piecemeal fashion rather than from a  more holistic perspective grounded in integrated decision-making. Thus, green spaces are designed and managed in a vacuum, disconnected from other decisions about the city.

On top of this, a tendency to think of green spaces narrowly as conventional parks and gardens limits opportunities to increase urban greening throughout a city. A  wide range of green elements, such as tree canopy, pocket parks, living roofs and walls, and some external amenity space provided in housing estates and developments, can contribute to positive health outcomes. Such non-traditional spaces have a number of benefits, including shading and urban cooling, promotion of active travel, biodiversity habitat, improved air quality, and places to relax. Collectively, these green elements – alongside conventional parks and gardens – make up an interconnected, multifaceted network of green space.

A more comprehensive urban greening approach acknowledges the reality of density, as well as how urban space is used, including vertically and across a mix of public and private spaces. And with increasing urban density, a broader range of green elements can more readily be delivered instead of relying on conventional parks as sole providers of green space. Indeed, opportunities to retrofit built-up cities – where people already are less likely to have access to nature – with new large, conventional green spaces in dense urban areas are rare.

Siloed approaches in design and planning policies can perpetuate socioeconomic and health inequalities. Permitted development rights, for example, allow conversion of office space to residential use to quickly deliver housing by bypassing the planning process. However, requirements for access to open or amenity space – including green space – are bypassed as well. Recent research led by Dr Ben Clifford found that just 3.5 per cent of permitted development units had access to private amenity space, compared to 23.1 per cent of homes delivered via planning permission. Housing created through permitted development is eight times more likely to be located in primarily commercial or industrial areas, where public green space is typically lacking. Thus, the short-term focus on adding residential units can lead to long-term problems stemming from lack of access to nature.

People engage more with green spaces near where they live – even when travel is not limited by a pandemic. We therefore need to provide local green spaces throughout a city to move towards more equitable health outcomes. But often resources are focused on larger, flagship spaces. While these destination spaces are critical nodes in a green network, they are not the spaces that most urban residents encounter daily. With more people indicating they plan to work from home long term post-pandemic, delivering ‘nature at the doorstep’ becomes all the more critical.

Green space falls within the wider  – and vaguer – category of open or amenity space, which means in housing developments, small residential balconies or unimaginative hard-surfaced spaces are often provided instead of natural features. When green space is supplied, it is largely ornamental, providing limited benefit. Opportunities to deliver urban greening that actively contributes to health outcomes are missed. For example, roof gardens can be places for quiet reflection, social interaction and small-scale food growing. High urban land values mean developers and homebuilders squeeze in more units – typically at the expense of on-site green space – to maximise profits. This puts pressure on existing green spaces by crowding in more users. The effects were evident during lockdown, when green spaces – and their litter bins – were overflowing.

Yet, simply providing access to green space is not enough in itself. Research has shown even when a community is well-endowed with green space, other factors affect if and how a space is used. These other qualities can stem from the design of the green space itself or can reflect wider cultural, socioeconomic and behavioural issues.

Demands on local green space constantly change, as cities experience population, demographic and cultural churn, as well as gentrification. If the design and management of green space does not reflect the community around it, people are less likely to use the space. For example, the presence of off-lead dogs can cause some populations to avoid green spaces. Research has shown that parks featuring a lot of sports pitches are more actively used by men. Lack of benches or handrails along walking trails can deter older residents from accessing green space.

Crime and anti-social behaviour in a surrounding neighbourhood can also reduce use of local green spaces. Poorly designed surrounding streetscapes can be perceived as unsafe and discourage people from accessing green  spaces. Providing a safe environment outside a  green space is, then, as critical as the design choices made within the space.

Finally, delivering and managing green space must be collaborative. With rising demand on statutory social services and austerity-ravaged budgets, local authorities cannot provide all the green space we need, particularly when much of urban life is spent weaving through a mixture of public and private spaces. There should be requirements on developers – with adequate teeth to enforce them – to provide on-site green space proportionate to the size of a residential or office development. Community and voluntary organisations have long helped maintain Britain’s green spaces, but such groups do not always represent the overall community. Reflecting the needs of all local residents – including those who do not engage with local green spaces – is imperative.

As we have seen, addressing inequalities in green space provision in increasingly dense urban areas is key for improving health and wellbeing. Yet, doing so requires tackling systemic inequalities beyond a conventional park’s boundaries. A  more integrated design, planning and governance approach that breaks down administrative, disciplinary and funding siloes is needed to connect green space to the rest of a city’s social and spatial fabric.

Prescriptive design measures can make green spaces – and urban greening more broadly – even more useful in improving health outcomes. A more inclusive conceptualisation of green space that reflects the realities of contemporary cities can contribute to addressing persistent issues of unequal access to some of the health benefits nature provides. Central to this is changing the perception of green space from passive, ornamental amenity to critical, active infrastructure. Conventional parks are just one part of a larger system. Parklets, for example, will not replicate a flagship park, but they provide opportunities for small-scale interactive moments and exposure to nature that might not otherwise occur. And, critically, they can serve as a link in a wider network of green space.

As cities grow and change, so, too, must their green spaces. Addressing crime and safety across the neighbourhood should form part of strategies to increase use of green spaces for health and wellbeing benefits. Green  spaces must reflect the needs of all of the local community, not just the most vocal. Residents who don’t find a space welcoming or safe will not use it, no matter  how accessible it is. This means continual community engagement and assessment to encourage all residents to engage with green space. Ultimately, increasing access to – and use of – urban green space to address health inequalities requires looking beyond physical interventions. Instead, broader social, cultural and economic issues must be addressed in tandem with improving how urban greening is spatially woven through our cities.

Meredith Whitten

Dr Meredith Whitten is a planner and ESRC postdoctoral fellow at the London School of Economics. Her research focuses on urban greening.


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