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Equal Access to Green Spaces – Why it’s Necessary and How to Make it Happen

Fond memories of family time in the park helped shape Conservation Action team intern Luke Willis’s future. Read his account of why green spaces in cities are so imperative for the health of people and wildlife alike.

Chicago skyline viewed through wild flowers and plants in the foreground, blurred by the depth of field.

A few blocks away from my childhood home is a simple city park. This green space, composed of trails, a central pond, community pavilions, grills, and more, is the setting of many of my fondest memories. Here, I would ride bikes with my best friends, go on evening strolls with my family (and my dog, of course), and run around catching lightning bugs into the late summer nights.

Of course, it was not just me who enjoyed this park, as this was the location of countless community gatherings. From firework shows to community concerts, this park acted as a venue for communal growth and connection, intellectual and artistic stimulation, and so much more.

It was through this park that I began to appreciate the complexity and beauty of the world around me. In this thriving ecosystem I became conscious of, concerned for, and inspired by the prospect of environmental conservation.

Today, I realize how lucky I was to have such a space just minutes away from my doorstep, a luxury many do not have. In urban environments across the United States and the world, access to green spaces is inhibited by a myriad of factors.

On the most basic level, the expansion of urban environments in population and size has decreased the available land area for green spaces. Further, these spaces are inequitably distributed, denying their benefits to some of our most vulnerable populations.

Green space is imperative for creating and maintaining a high quality of life for people, and for protecting our blue planet and the animals that call it home. As we look toward the future of our cities, we must consider this direct connection between people and the environment and the mutual benefits that can be derived from conscious development and utilization of green spaces.

Access to green space is necessary, but not equally distributed

Green spaces in cities are not equally accessible, as they are distributed largely along the lines of socioeconomic status and race, with more affluent and whiter neighborhoods having disproportionate access to high-quality and well-maintained parks. The city of Chicago is no exception. This trend is particularly present in the historically disadvantaged South and West side neighborhoods, which have inequitable access to green space by almost every metric.

These disparities become even more concerning when presented with the undeniable benefits of access to nature, which our underserved communities simultaneously have the most to gain, but are uniquely denied. These benefits can be seen at almost every level of social organization, from intrinsic personal benefits, to community benefits, to far reaching policy impacts.

A bee sits on fluffy bright purple flowers.

For People

Nature can improve mental and physical health

Exposure to nature has many measurable impacts on individual health and quality of life, the first being mental health.

Providing communities with green spaces encourages physical activity. Studies show that cities with increased access to parks have lower rates of obesity, diabetes and other health problems that can stem from a lack of physical activity.

Green spaces build community

Development of public parks and gardens can effectively bring communities together in safe spaces. From festivals to farmer's markets to sports practices and much more, public parks bring individuals together. 

Through interactions with each other, communities become more concerned for their neighbors and the well-being of their neighborhood. Further, social bonds formed through communal spaces can increase empathy and understanding, creating a more inclusive, accepting and enjoyable community for all of those in it.

Green spaces can also beautify a community. These aesthetic improvements can create a sense of pride for the neighborhood. Well-maintained, beautiful parks can also positively change the perception of the community by those outside of it. Beautiful greenery like trees and flowers make an area more desirable to live in, which can increase property values, promote local businesses and provide for economic growth.

“By creating green spaces and integrating them into urban environments, the air pollution produced as a consequence of urbanism can be mitigated by the urban environment itself.”

For the Environment

Benefits for people are far from the only important aspect of expanding green spaces in our cities. Through their development, we can improve environmental quality in almost every capacity.

Habitat

Public green spaces are a safe habitat for countless native plants and animals to flourish. Wildlife thriving in urban environments can improve the conditions of the green space as a whole, making it a more enjoyable space for all that call it home.

Air Quality and Warming

Green spaces can also improve air quality by filtering greenhouse gases. A study by the University of Delaware reports that Chicago’s trees filtered 234 tons of particulate pollution and cleansed the air of 98 tons of nitrogen dioxide, 93 tons of sulfur dioxide and 17 tons of carbon monoxide.

Without trees, these greenhouse gasses are trapped in our atmosphere with heat unable to escape, which instigates warming cycles and decreases overall air quality. By creating green spaces and integrating them into urban environments, the air pollution produced as a consequence of urbanism can be mitigated by the urban environment itself.

Green space can inspire policy change

Climate change is a collective problem that requires immediate action to achieve meaningful change. Equitable access to green spaces may be the first building block in mobilizing this collective support. When a community has access to safe, high-quality parks, they build an important connection with the natural world that can be seen in how they live, consume and even how they vote in elections.

By increasing equitable access to green spaces, communities not only become better places to live in the short term, but long-term policy change can result. Today, I look to the city of Chicago and urban spaces across the globe and hope for nothing more than the same access to nature that I was gifted as a child. By doing so, we can drastically increase quality of life for all communities, while simultaneously protecting our blue planet.

—  Luke Willis, Conservation Action Team intern