As part of COVID-19 lockdown measures, the UK government stipulated a maximum of one hour's exercise per person per day. You only have to look at recent photos of sunny parks across the UK to conclude where people want to spend that hour. Green space is important to us all, and yet millions of people lack good quality green space close to home, especially in poorer areas.
A 2018 report shows 2.5 million people live further than 10 minutes' walk from a park or green space. What’s more, the report shows that across the UK population, the amount of accessible green space per person is less than half the size of a 6-yard box (the goal area) on a football pitch.
Why we need access to nature
Access to nature and better quality open space is good for us. According to government: "access to natural green spaces for fresh air, exercise and quiet contemplation has benefits for both physical and mental health. Research provides good evidence of reductions in levels of heart disease, obesity and depression where people live close to green spaces."
Better planting of trees, plants and grasslands also keeps us cool in summer, helps reduce flood risk and absorbs carbon.
Good quality green space is also a money-spinner: the frequent use of parks and green spaces is worth over £30 billion a year to the UK population, and it’s estimated the NHS saves at least £100 million a year in fewer GP visits and prescriptions. Those benefits and savings could be even higher if everyone could share these immense free “natural health service” benefits.
Inequality and green space
Despite the clear benefits, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that access to green space is a social justice issue. The Guardian reports that park closures (due to overcrowding) disproportionately impact BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) and poorer communities, as statistically these communities share less space and have less access to private gardens and public parks.
Government research also indicates clear inequalities in opportunity for engagement. Children from the most deprived areas are 20% less likely to spend time outside than those in affluent areas. It found that 70% of children from white backgrounds spend time outside once a week compared to 56% of children from black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) backgrounds.
When asked how accessible they found local green space, 33% of white respondents strongly agreed that it was accessible compared to just 19% of people from BAME backgrounds.
If nature is to be made accessible to everyone, then local and national government must address (and invest in) ways of encouraging and creating better quality green space amidst our urban landscapes.
What’s more, an increased quantity and better quality of green space won’t just benefit us – it'll help reverse nature’s decline so that wild species thrive, not just survive.
Ideas on greening space
Nature-friendly initiatives are already being explored by some councils and communities that are looking at how streets, routes to parks, and parks themselves can be better for people and nature alike:
- Greater Manchester plans for every person to have access to local green space as well as more trees and healthy and locally grown food.
- A study of existing green space in the London Borough of Camden shows how it helps cool the area by reducing the threats of excessive summer temperatures. For the free natural air conditioning service provided by green space to benefit the entire borough, an extra 360 hectares of green space is needed, the study says.
- Even heavily built-up areas such as Hackney in London have pledged to double their tree cover to help cool the city, clean the air, capture and divert rainwater and absorb and lock-in carbon. What’s more, community action has led to parking spaces being converted into mini gardens or "parklets".
Government "guidance" on green space: a contradiction
The positive examples of councils like Hackney and Greater Manchester authority lie in stark contrast to what national government is doing to secure green space.
Despite government-issued standards on how far anyone should live from green space, the government’s planning rules put pressure on councils to approve developments even if they harm nature, parks and green spaces. Furthermore, the government also gives developers a get-out clause to avoid providing much-needed local amenity. The now notorious “Viability Test” allows developers to reject local communities’ request for facilities if they can show it would eat into profits.
Now let’s get this straight – some developers do include space for nature, play and recreation in their plans. But, more often than not, green space simply isn’t factored in from the start and existing natural features on a site are cleared and replaced by landscaped grass of little natural value, and trees stuck in concrete.
More shockingly, some developments have also been deliberately designed to stop anyone living in social housing to access green and play space. Again, this disproportionately affects poorer communities.
When the lockdown lifts, our approach to land use must change if we are to secure access to green space for everyone.
The government has set out a "25 Year Plan" to restore nature and healthy living conditions for people within a generation, but progress on the Plan is way off track and its Environment Bill (which is supposed to give the Plan legal weight and set a range of ambitious targets on improving nature, among other things) is still too weak to be effective.
So what should the government do to improve access to good quality green space?
- Make its "Access to Green Space" standards obligatory, and ensure everyone can access good quality green space within 300 metres of home
- Support the Charter for Parks as part of ending the decline of local parks and green spaces, including from budget cuts
- Make the Planning System fit for purpose by properly protecting existing green space and making good quality green space a required part of all development.
We’ve been working with other conservation groups to lobby government to make the Plan and the Environment Bill meet the nation’s needs. They’re both delayed by the lockdown, but when politicians go back to Parliament we'll be making the case for everyone’s right to a daily dose of nature on their doorstep.
Just as nature needs to thrive everywhere (not just in nature reserves), our access to nature needs to thrive too. And that starts in our streets, our parks and our open spaces.