Cities Need to Increase the Amount of Green Space, Especially in Lower-Income Neighborhoods

Sandra Folzer, Weavers Way Environment Committee

Ever heard of “forest bathing?” I hadn’t. It’s the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, a term created decades ago by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries. Forest bathing involves submerging oneself in the wonder of nature — observing, focusing and meditating while disconnected from technology. The reported health benefits related to this practice prompted the Japanese government to incorporate forest bathing into its national health program.

Research confirms that nature is good for both your physical and mental health. A Danish study found that children from birth to 10 years old who grew up with the lowest levels of green space nearby were up to 55% more likely to develop a mental health disorder later in life. Researchers from Aarhus University compiled information from nearly a million people in Denmark and used satellite data to calculate the amount of green space. This relationship between green space and mental health remained even after factoring in socioeconomic status and parental history of mental illness.

Additionally, a study by researchers at the University of Wollongong in Australia found that adults who lived in neighborhoods comprising 30% or more tree canopy were less likely to suffer poor physical health or experience psychological distress.

Clearly, trees are important. These findings underscore the need for green space in cities, particularly given that more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas. However, in many cities, low-income neighborhoods have fewer parks and trees, and people of color are disproportionately impacted. Creating more green space in underserved neighborhoods may even help improve health outcomes.

Denver is attempting to remedy these disparities. According to a recent report in the New York Times, city officials are planning to purchase land for parks, repair playgrounds, build recreation centers and plant trees where there are few. They are able to do this because of an environmental tax that increased the sales tax by 25 percent. The city is attempting to confront years of discrimination through municipal planning.

However, how local governments take action is just as important as what actions they take. Governments appear paternalistic when they do not consult people before implementing programs that affect them. Community involvement demonstrates respect. In Denver, some residents have expressed concerns that improvements might bring gentrification, pricing them out of their homes, while others worry that the burden of maintaining new parks will fall on them. In Detroit, a tree-planting project was rejected by many in 2014 because people in the community weren’t consulted beforehand.

Jonathan Kaledin, formerly of the Nature Conservancy, made a sound suggestion recently in an opinion piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He recognized that the pandemic exposed inequities in access to park space, citing an April report from the National Recreation and Parks Association that noted, “There are fewer quality parks in close proximity to low-income residents and communities of color.” Kaledin also mentioned that in August, Kamala Harris led a group of 16 senators who asked for more funding for urban green spaces, since the pandemic has demonstrated that many communities don’t have safe, shared green spaces.

As a solution, Kaledin suggested a National Urban Green Space Initiative to invest in upgrading existing parks, establishing new green spaces, undertaking green infrastructure projects and establishing new urban community gardens and farms. The program could establish an urban conservation corps under AmeriCorps that would recruit people from high-need communities and provide them with education and training. Such an initiative would create more green space while investing in jobs and enabling communities to make decisions about their own neighborhoods.