Improving access to urban green spaces to reduce health inequalities

The associations between the state of the environment and human health are profound and well-documented. However, it is clear from a number of studies that access to green spaces is not equitable.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the vital importance of green space in cities for the well-being of residents, as citizens flocked to urban parks for their mental and physical health during the period of social restrictions (IEEP, 2020).

As stated in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11.7, cities must “provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces”. However, it is clear from a number of studies that access to green spaces is not equitable, with significant negative implications for health inequality. In a recent publication, the European Environment Agency, supported by the IEEP, reviewed the evidence on the access to urban green and blue spaces of various social groups, namely old people, children, women, people with low socioeconomic status, people with disabilities, as well as immigrants and ethnic minorities.

This blog further expands on the topic, highlighting the relationships between populations of lower socioeconomic status, urban green space accessibility, and mental and physical health.

Inequalities in green space access in relation to socio-economic status

A mounting body of research found that green spaces are unevenly distributed across European cities, with a tendency to be more accessible in affluent neighbourhoods. However, it is important to note that these studies are city-specific, meaning that results of a specific city cannot be extrapolated to other cities. To illustrate this heterogeneity, below are robust case studies conducted in various European cities between 2015 and 2021.

  • In Stockholm, Sweden, people with higher incomes have greater access to nearby green and blue areas within walking distance of their homes (Goldenberg, Kalantari & Destouni, 2018).
  • In the city of Lodz, Poland, two-thirds (67%) of children who belong to the poor income-related status group have very low visible greenery coverage along their walks from home to school (Laszkiewicz & Sikorska, 2020).
  • In the city of Porto, Portugal, mean distance to green space increased with neighbourhood deprivation (Hoffiman, Barros & Ribeiro, 2017).
  • In the Netherlands, the availability of green space within 250 m is lower in neighbourhoods of lower socioeconomic status (de Vries, Buijs & Snep, 2020).
  • In Debrecen, Hungary, wealthy residential areas are rich in high-quality (private) green spaces, whilst other lower status neighbourhoods suffer from a lack of good quality green spaces (Csomós, Zsolt & Kovács, 2020).

Health benefits of urban green spaces for individuals of low socio-economic status

Growing evidence demonstrates the positive effect of contact with nature on human health and well-being. The health benefits appear to be even stronger for socio-economically disadvantaged populations due to their stretched health budgets. Below are several case studies showing this.

  • In the German city of Leipzig, high density of street trees at 100 m around the home significantly reduced the probability of being prescribed antidepressants for individuals of lower socio-economic status (Marselle et al., 2020).
  • In Belgium, living near green spaces was associated with lower cardiovascular medication sales for people with lower socio-economic status (Aerts et al., 2020).
  • In the deprived districts of Marseille, France, fruit and vegetable supplies of low income gardeners were higher than non-gardener residents, suggesting that community gardens can incentivize vulnerable social groups to adopt healthy dietary habits (Martin et al., 2017).
  • In Kaunas, Lithuania, poor maternal education and low exposure to neighbourhood greenness increased the likelihood of being overweight and obese in 4–6-year-old children (Petraviciene et al., 2018).
  • In Barcelona, Spain, lower educated residents benefit more from neighbourhood green space than highly educated residents (Ruijsbroek et al., 2017).

Key recommendations

The above-mentioned evidence reveals the necessity to provide accessible urban green spaces, particularly for individuals of low socioeconomic status. Below are some recommendations to address this challenge at the European and city level.

Although fundamentally a local issue, EU policymakers should support cities of all sizes and levels of development to improve access to green space through EU funding, guidance, and capacity building.

The provision of urban green space also has clear synergies with climate adaptation and mitigation, disaster risk resilience, and enhancing biodiversity. It is thus an excellent example of a win-win policy measure that can tackle both socio-economic inequality, health problems and environmental challenges, as previous IEEP research has shown. It should be emphasised to a much greater extent in the European policy framework.

Urban planning decisions regarding the creation or improvement of green space in the city should be informed by an assessment of access to green space by different socio-economic groups. Improving the access of vulnerable groups should be prioritised. 

Urban planners and city administrators could focus their efforts in developing urban community gardens, which can incentivize poorer residents to adopt healthy dietary habits

Action at the city level could be directed in increasing the accessibility to the coast and other smaller water areas as well as green areas situated further away from the city centre (e.g., forests and nature protected areas) for various population groups via public transport, bike lanes, secured public access, and restoration.