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Urban green spaces do not benefit the health of all

Date: 2019-04-03

In general, the creation of parks and green spaces in urban centers has positive effects on the health of city residents. However, looking in more detail, only those who belong to the most favored social classes may be benefitting from these spaces. A new article published by a group of researchers from the Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) and the Medical Research Institute of the Hospital del Mar (IMIM) shows that, although living in areas with green spaces are associated with better self-perceived health on the part of residents at large, such benefits exclude those with a lower educational level and lower incomes.

The progressive "greening" of cities through the creation of green spaces, parks and ecological corridors can have positive effects on the physical and psychological health of people. This process of "greening" has been associated with the improvement of air quality, promotion of physical activity and the creation of stronger social bonds among residents, thus reducing levels of chronic stress and improving health in general. However, these transformations may be accompanied by gentrification processes whereby the original population of a lower-middle class neighborhood is displaced (socially, culturally and / or physically) by new residents with greater purchasing power who arrive to the area attracted by the offer of housing and more attractive services.

The study, carried out in New York City and published in the journal Health & Place, evaluates for the first time whether the gentrification process that certain districts are experiencing modifies the relationship between green spaces and health. To do this, they took demographic and self-perceived health data from more than 44,000 NYC citizens residing in three neighborhood typologies: non-gentrifiable neighborhoods (those that already include many residents of high socioeconomic classes), neighborhoods that were being gentrified, and neighborhoods that were not gentrifying.

The results show that the amount of green space only led to positive effects on health in the case of gentrifying neighborhoods. However, within this type of neighborhood, only the most privileged residents seemed to benefit from green spaces. That is, those who have a higher educational level (at least a university degree) or higher income. Thus, the most disadvantaged groups - such as those with lower incomes or lower levels of education - did not appear to benefit from living in greener neighborhoods.

"Gentrification modifies the effect that exposure to green areas has on health, resulting in benefits only for the privileged," says Dr. Helen Cole, first author of the study and member of the Urban Environmental Justice Laboratory of Barcelona (BCNUEJ) of ICTA-UAB, who affirms that the greenest cities are not always fair and healthy for all and that the benefits of green spaces are not always equitable.

The amount green space in the other two types of neighborhood (non-gentrifying neighborhoods) was not related to effects on the health of residents. This may be due to the fact that the effect of green spaces is counteracted by other determinants of health. For example, residents of well-off neighborhoods can enjoy many other services and leisure activities that may impact health. On the other hand, those living in predominantly lower class neighborhoods, in general, may have a worse health due to socioeconomic conditions or other disadvantages.

Dr. Cole emphasizes the importance of the results because "a common argument in favor of gentrification is that the ‘benefits’ of new improved areas, such as those that tend to gentrify, may also benefit long-term residents. Our results indicate that, when it comes to the benefits of green spaces on health, this does not seem to happen" and remember that "only those that we could consider ‘gentrifiers’ have advantages, while residents with lower income or lower levels of education living in gentrifying neighborhoods did not benefit." The authors conclude by recalling that structural interventions, such as new green spaces, should be planned and evaluated in the context of equity and urban social change, and efforts should be coordinated with other sectors and priorities such as health and housing.

Scientific article 
Cole H.V.S., Triguero-Mas M., Connolly J.J.T, Anguelovski I. (2019). Determining the health benefits of green space: Does gentrification matter? Health & Place, 57 1-11

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