Are all green spaces good spaces?

Urban green spaces provide a wealth of benefits– whether those be for fresh water and food, a place to relax and run around, or simply to improve air quality.

With rapid global urbanisation, it’s more important than ever that green spaces be available for all residents of cities, new and established. But for maximum benefit, we also must understand how different people benefit differently from different urban spaces.

Different park amenities can open up access to different demographics, as shown in the iconic Mount Royal Park in Montreal, Canada. Photo: co-author Matt Mitchell.

The supply and demand of ecosystem services, like the green spaces themselves, are not the same across a city, because socio-economics plays into both supply and demand… and realised benefit.

For example, one study found forested areas were a deterrent to certain demographics, stemming from concerns about sexual violence, theft and racial discrimination – in turn, stemming from the perception that vegetation can conceal criminals. Demand for and use of green space was lower from women, elderly, and Asian and African-Caribbean residents. In this case, lighting could be considered more important than trees for neighbourhood residents. Overall, tailored park design would be needed to achieve maximum community benefit.

Lighting could be considered more important than bushes or other vegetation in some parks for some demographics.

Socio-economics also determine planning and management of green spaces, meaning distribution and upkeep can differ depending on the wealth of an city area. For example: Areas with higher levels of formal education and wealth are more likely to benefit from parks with native remnant ecosystems which are themselves remnants of historical development and city planning efforts or policies.

Wealthier areas are also more likely to have public green space and larger private lawn space, often as a result of a power relationships between different city residents and local government. Existence and size of green spaces are not the only considerations as socio-economics also influences quality of green spaces. Poorer areas generally not only have less private and public green space (or the resources to pay for a private gardener, for example), but existing public spaces are likely to have fewer trees and less species richness.

Biodiverse plantings can exist even in highly-managed urban spaces, as shown in this reserve in North Balwyn, Melbourne, Australia. Photo: co-author Chris Ives.

The actual benefits of urban green spaces interact with socio-economics in even trickier, less understood ways, than do supply or demand.

Urban gardens exemplify these nuances in that they can provide multiple benefits which will be felt, or realized, differently by urban communities. Even with similar supply and demand, urban gardens may benefit poorer residents more through food provision, supplemental income, and/or senses of place than they do for more well-off residents. In order to provide truly equitable urban green space benefits, city planners, land managers, and other decision-makers have to think about end-benefits in their policies and programs, adjusting incentives or educational opportunities.

Urban food gardens can do more than just provide food but the actual benefits may depend on a community's socio-economic context.

Based on this evidence, there is an urgent need to bring these threads together to improve the conceptual understanding of how socio-economic factors influence ecosystem services in cities to improve urban planning and then move that understanding into action and practice.

Without considering these interacting factors, planners run the risk of shifting quantity or quality of green space across cities without equitable benefits for residents. With due consideration and incorporation of these interacting factors, green space influencers can ensure that nature's benefits equitably and inclusively meet the needs of diverse city residents so that more urban green spaces can be, truly, good.

You can follow Marit Wilkerson on Twitter @MaritWilk or visit her website.

Dr Marit Wilkerson


Created with images by 463259 - "garden gardenbythebay supertree singapore architecture art trees" • ferobanjo - "night park city park dark outdoors tree" • markusspiske - "urban gardening locavore regional bio healthy salad"

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