Urban greenspace typically refers to public parks, street verges, and sports grounds owned by the local council. Ros McDermott argues that urban greenspace is a resource for health, and the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) should ensure equitable access to these spaces with a particular focus on people hit hardest by the pandemic. This article is part of larger project looking at Megatrends in the West Midlands. Megatrends are major movements or patterns or trends that are having a transformative impact on business, economy, society, cultures and personal lives. The project examines some of these megatrends in a series of provocations, podcasts and a report. View the full provocation.
The impact of Covid-19
COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted people of lower socioeconomic status, Black, Asian, and ethnic minority groups, older people, and people with learning disabilities in the UK.1 Universally, levels of self-reported depression and anxiety have significantly increased.2 However, stressors induced by the associated lockdown measures have not been born equally: school closures and widespread job loss have disproportionately affected women on lower incomes.3
These patterns of inequality have been reflected within the West Midlands. The Health of the Region 2020 report found a strong correlation between COVID-19-related deaths and area deprivation, and between COVID-19-related deaths and areas with a greater proportion of Black, Asian and ethnic minority residents.4 City-REDI has previously highlighted how the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people from Black, Asian, and ethnic minority backgrounds in the West Midlands can be attributed to structural inequalities in income, housing, healthcare, and workplace occupation. The report also found that self-reported anxiety rates have risen significantly from the previous year (21.9% up to 47.9%) with young people being particularly affected.5
At the same time, visits to urban greenspace have soared during the lockdown, highlighting the critical importance of green infrastructure for maintaining the health and well-being of city residents.6 Combining Theme A (Changing Function of Places) and B (Improving Health and Wellbeing) the WMCA should recognize the value of urban green space as a resource for health, and ensure equitable access to these spaces with a particular focus on people hit hardest by the pandemic.7 This reflects the WMCA’s commitment to a radical prevention approach to tackle the health inequalities highlighted during the pandemic, as set out in the Health of the Region 2020 report. Such an approach recognizes how structural inequalities in accessing resources (such as a well-maintained local greenspace or private garden) influence the possibility of engaging in health-promoting behaviour (exercise or relaxing in greenspaces).
Return to the local
Constraints to life under lockdown have put a spotlight on the liveability of neighbourhoods, with a renewed appreciation of local greenspaces and the role they play in maintaining physical and mental health.
In March 2020, Public Health England (PHE) published a new review synthesizing compelling evidence that exposure to good quality green space promotes health. PHE detail a number of the specific physical and mental health benefits associated with exposure to greenspace
Most physical and mental health benefits noted by PHE (2020) are achieved through an individual using an urban greenspace, bringing to light the issue of equitable access. Lockdown measures have spotlighted conversations in the UK around ‘have- and have nots’ with many arguing access to urban greenspace is far from equal. However, access is too often oversimplified, potentially leading to poorly informed policy decisions that may aggravate health inequalities, rather than reduce them. As highlighted by the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE) survey, in England patterns of engagement with urban greenspace consistently relate to demographics.
Proximity and size
While the proximity to and size of an urban greenspace undoubtedly influence the likelihood that an individual chooses to use it, these indicators have severe limitations. When used to analyse access, these indicators are often applied to varied definitions of greenspace which has resulted in conflicting conclusions9.
Although physical barriers such as proximity, size, and transport options influence whether an individual utilizes an urban greenspace, recent research has shown that perceptions of the quality of that space is a key factor affecting its use and that these perceptions are influenced by demographics. 10 This sheds some light on the findings of the MENE survey and can reduce health inequalities by promoting equitable access for all groups.
Local authorities remain the largest owner of urban greenspace12. However, there is currently no statutory requirement for councils to ring-fence funding for greenspace, and through the year park budgets have diminished. UNISON found that more than half (59%) of local authorities reduced park budgets between 2016- 2019, with Warwickshire County Council implementing the largest cut in one year, reducing its budget for parks by 87% between 2017 and 2018.
Communities of self-interest
In the context of these funding cuts, Friends Groups have been crucial in caring for urban greenspaces in the WMCA region. There are over 6,000 Friends Groups in the UK, with Birmingham served by the greatest number.
However, there are issues when gaps in greenspace maintenance are filled by volunteer labour. Shared governance arrangements make vulnerable communities responsible for maintaining their own services in the absence of state support.
Effective interventions: Examples from within the WMCA region
Current projects within the WMCA region can inspire discussion around the possibilities for future interventions in our urban green spaces. PHE (2020) highlights three intervention types that can reduce inequalities in accessing health benefits. These are:
- Increase the amount and quality of green space.
- Increase use or engagement.
- Use targeted health interventions based on greenspace.
(1 & 3) Naturally Birmingham: Future Parks Accelerator
The ‘Future Parks Accelerator’ is a collaboration between the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the National Trust, and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.
- The funding for this project aims to support cities in building a sustainable future for the UK’s urban green spaces. Birmingham is one of 8 cities that were successful in a bid for funding and has created Naturally Birmingham as a two-year project.
- As highlighted, there are real issues with accessing good quality, local greenspace which must be turned around if these spaces are to be used by all groups to promote health. The Health and Wellbeing strand of Naturally Birmingham is currently focused on maximising the use of local green spaces to improve health and wellbeing through a pilot of the ‘20-minute neighbourhood’ concept. Previous projects have attempted to quantify the impact of green space through the health benefits delivered by social prescribing initiatives using these spaces.
- These pilot projects aim to get every department in the Council to understand the importance of green space to their work and develop a sustainable finance framework to invest in these spaces, redefining the contribution that the green environment makes to the city, now and in the future.
(1&2) Active Wellbeing Society
Grounded in the areas of Birmingham where inequalities are most evident, the Active Wellbeing Society works to tackle inequalities in health and promote community development, working collaboratively with communities to remove barriers to involvement. They run several projects, of which Active Communities and Active Parks (2) and Social Prescribing (3) are notable.
- Active Communities is one of 12 national pilots supported by National Lottery funding with Solihull and Birmingham Council working together to share best practices. It focuses on six key areas in deprived wards. The focus is on physical activity tied to community activism, shifting power so that communities make decisions based on their needs, and making interventions much more sustainable. This has involved sports equipment loans (e.g bikes) and partnerships with Sähëlï Hub, catering to the culturally sensitive needs of Muslim women through ‘women only’ health and fitness sessions that run in parks across the East of Birmingham.
- Active Parks was set up by the Council and offers a range of free physical activity classes in over 80 urban greenspaces in Birmingham. Active Parks is designed to remove barriers – it is free, easy, and geared towards beginners.
- Active Wellbeing has begun to run social prescribing initiatives with local GPs, using Social Prescribing Link workers to connect people with opportunities across Birmingham to become more physically active and promote the use of local green spaces.
Key Policy Messages
- Urban green space should be valued as a crucial resource for preventative health.
- Policymakers should take care to understand equitable provision beyond proximity.
- Community engagement should take place to assess perceived barriers to accessing urban green spaces within the WMCA region.
- Funding needs to prioritize maintenance, facilities, and services that encourage communities to use these spaces.
This article is part of a larger project looking at Megatrends in the West Midlands. Megatrends are major movements or patterns or trends that are having a transformative impact on business, economy, society, cultures, and personal lives.
The project examines some of these megatrends in a series of provocations, podcasts and a report.
This blog was written by Ros McDermott.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI / WMREDI or the University of Birmingham.