Why green spaces are vital for the UK’s levelling up agenda

Access to parks and wild areas can help to improve people’s wellbeing.

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Should everyone have a right to a park or green space close to their home? A year ago this question might have seemed of marginal interest, but following people's experiences of lockdown – and the huge relief expressed by so many when they were allowed to visit parks again – it is a question that is being asked more and more. Parks and green spaces, previously considered “nice to have” but not essential, are now being promoted as an ingredient in any attempts to “build back better”.

During the summer, Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP for Brighton, published “Green Steps to Better”, setting out nine priorities for government action to ensure that short-term responses to the coronavirus pandemic created “resilient green foundations for a better future”. One of the nine priorities is a right of access to green space. This would set out that no one would have to walk more than ten minutes from their homes to a park or green space.

To make this happen, Lucas proposes “re-wilding” the green spaces around public buildings such as hospitals. She also suggests opening private green spaces, such as golf courses, to the public. It’s an idea that is likely to be controversial with golfers, to say the least.

Since Lucas published “Green Steps to Better”, others have started arguing for a right to green space – and pointing out the evidence that people with lower incomes, and people from black or ethnic minority backgrounds, are less likely to have green spaces close to home than wealthier communities. Given the strong evidence that green spaces are vital to people’s wellbeing, this is increasingly being framed as an issue of equality and justice.

In August, the walking charity the Ramblers worked with pollster YouGov to find out people’s attitudes to their local green spaces following lockdown. They discovered that only 5 per cent of the population agreed that access to parks and green spaces has never been important to them, an extraordinary consensus for any topic. Around 70 per cent agreed that parks and green spaces were a good place to relax and important for their mental health.

However, the report also pointed out that the richest 20 per cent of places in England, where residents are more likely to have private gardens, have five times the amount of green space that the poorest 10 per cent. The survey also showed that people who identify as being from a black, Asian or ethnic minority background are much less likely to live within five minutes of a green space (39 per cent) than people who identify as white (58 per cent).

Friends of the Earth has also joined the demands for a right to green space and has published an online map into which people can type their postcodes to discover how well their neighbourhood ranks in terms of green space provision. By analysing ONS data about both private gardens and public green spaces it found that “1,257 neighbourhoods in the UK, home to 10.9 million people, are deprived of green space”, equating to roughly one in five of the population; and that 42 per cent of people from BAME backgrounds live in green space-deprived areas, compared with just 15 per cent of white people.

Identifying the unfair distribution of parks and green spaces is only the first step; knowing how to solve this problem is trickier. While Caroline Lucas suggests opening up golf courses and the land around public buildings, the Ramblers is asking the government to amend the Environment Bill, currently going through parliament, to include national targets for access to nature. If adopted, these targets would, at least, give planners, councils and developers a clear understanding of what is required in each neighbourhood.

Friends of the Earth is focusing on the Treasury, which, later this year is due to publish a comprehensive spending review setting out how government will allocate public funding for the next three years. Friends of the Earth wants people
to demand a “green and fair” recovery plan that reduces spending on roads and increases funding to local councils.

A combination of clear targets for the distribution of parks and green spaces plus very significant additional funding for local councils could start to tackle the problem. Many councils already have “green infrastructure strategies” that set out how and where green spaces, parks and other types of green infrastructure are distributed across their neighbourhoods, identifying areas that lack enough parks, and green spaces that need more investment to improve their quality.

Without significant funding, however, very few councils can afford to buy land in built-up areas and create new parks. With budgets drained by the economic effects of the pandemic, many will be forced to cut spending on parks maintenance: for them the idea of creating new parks, which will require even more maintenance funding, is the stuff of fantasy.

Without the major change in public spending priorities that Friends of the Earth is calling for, creating new parks in old places will be difficult. An easier ask is that all new homes that are built – and the government’s aim is to build 300,000 new homes a year – should have access to good green spaces.

The Town and Country Planning Association is asking for just that, as part of its campaign for a Healthy Homes Act. The proposed act would require all new homes to meet a range of standards to support the wellbeing of occupants. One of the principles included in the proposed act is that all new homes should be “built within places that prioritise and provide access to sustainable transport, and walkable services including green infrastructure and play space”.

If politicians are serious about “levelling up” the country to reduce inequalities, investing in good green spaces for those places that lack them would be a popular place to start. 

Julia Thrift is director of healthier place-making at the Town and Country Planning Association.

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