Inequality and green space – can we talk?

By Jayne Manley

First published June 2020; updated May 2023

It’s pretty clear that spending time in quality natural open spaces is good for us, it’s so vital for our mental and physical health. But there are inequalities in access to green space, with black and minority ethnic people and poorer communities having fewer opportunities to benefit from nearby green spaces. Access challenges urgently need to be addressed at district/county level as well as nationally through policies and support. Recovery from Covid-19 needs to be a green economic recovery and Earth Trust is asking that we fight for green space equity to address the widening divide in human health outcomes across our communities.

Access to green space

It’s a myth that access to quality green space comes for free. With neither government green space ambition nor a support structure for our fragile natural health service, whether you are able to benefit from spending time in nature is a lottery. Covid-19 has shown a divide between those that have green spaces locally and those that do not and this is likely to be reflected in the health of communities.

Our physical and mental wellbeing relies on being able to access the natural world. Earth Trust’s experience is that more people than ever before want to access green spaces. Our most recent study showed what people value about access during this pandemic: green places being local to them that are open space where people can exercise, or quietly contemplate. People value variety in their visit provided by a change in scenery and habitat. It’s interesting that what people are saying they value in this study is actually what is good for their mental health: spending time outdoors for more than two hours, a diversity of landscape and having this available local to where they live. There is evidence that people who live close to green space are less likely to suffer from heart disease, obesity and depression.

However, there are at least two ‘elephants in the room’. Covid-19 caused park and green space closures that have disproportionately impacted people from ethnic minorities and poorer communities. Why should this be? Statistically ethnic minority communities have less space available to them and have less access to private gardens and public parks.

There are still many people living in the UK who do not live within easy reach of an open green space. Fields in Trust found that there are 2.6 million Britons without access to a green space within a ten-minute walk.  A higher percentage of people from ethnic minorities live in areas most lacking in access to open green spaces with wildlife value. Runnymede is the UK’s independent race equality think tank which generates intelligence to challenge race inequality in Britain and it has summarised the health disparity created by people from ethnic minority’s lower presence in nature and open countryside. A 2017 report from Natural England showed black and Asian people are less likely to regularly visit natural settings. There is wide recognition that participation within nature-based activities is largely white, so this low presence means that people from ethnic minorities miss out on the pleasure, health benefits and involvement in caring for natural spaces.

People may have personal apprehensions about stepping into open countryside. For some this may be about not always feeling safe, being unsure of how they will be received, or not liking how they will be made to feel.  Runnymede has conjectured that disenfranchisement has separated many of us from the nature that is our source of mental and physical nourishment.

access to green space - visitors entering gate at wittenham clumps with lady smiling holding gate open

Earth Trust visitor experience

Many Earth Trust visitors currently stay within an area that feels most comfortable, the spaces most accessible from the car park, and few of the 150,000 visits to the farm go beyond the meadow surrounding the Wittenham Clump hills to explore and discover what the location has to offer.  So, as we are thinking and acting to address green space inequalities, it’s important that people are welcomed and made to feel confident and comfortable, with all their basic needs met so that they can relax and enjoy their nature- based experience. Earth Trust recognises that there is much more we can do to offer this warm welcome, especially through the facilities, signage and opportunities at all our places and spaces.

Whilst the political support for green spaces has been found wanting at this time, we will continue to stand up for and press for equality of access to the health-giving benefits of beautiful countryside and local green space.