Environment Spaces and services

How green spaces and communities can help us move towards a resilient Britain

Ahead of our panel discussion on 10 March with Friends of the Earth, their head of England Victoria Marsom explores the inequalities in access to green spaces and how communities can play an important role in addressing this.

When talking with people across the country about how they’ve coped with the huge changes to the way we live our lives during the pandemic, many say that having access to a park or green space near to where they live has aided their health and wellbeing – especially their mental health and resilience overall.

Unfortunately, not everyone in the UK enjoys the same access to green space – and this has an onward impact on how they’re able to cope with the challenges we’re all facing in 2021.

The COVID-19 crisis has for all of us thrown a spotlight onto our ability to access nature, and has highlighted inequality in access levels across different communities. The communities we support at Friends of the Earth have also highlighted this, leading us to explore the challenges of access to green space in England in more detail.

The challenge to different communities

In Friends of the Earth’s recent report, England’s Green Space Gap, our analysis revealed a marked disparity in access to green space – and particularly, a strong correlation between green-space deprivation and ethnicity.

The standout finding is that if you are a person of black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) origin you are more than twice as likely as a white person to live in areas in England that are most deprived of green space.

Over the past 18 months Friends of the Earth have been supporting community groups from across England, Wales and Northern Ireland to advocate to their councils to deliver action plans to help tackle the climate crisis. This plan contains a range of actions that can be delivered right now by councils, within their existing powers – including more and higher quality green spaces.

If you are a person of black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) origin you are more than twice as likely as a white person to live in areas in England that are most deprived of green space.

Almost 40 per cent of people of BAME backgrounds live in England’s most green-space-deprived neighbourhoods, compared to 14 per cent of white people. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed existing inequalities, including those covered in this report. These have already been well-documented – for example, in the ground-breaking 2010 Marmot Review of health inequalities in England, and more recent work by The King’s Fund.

Community campaigners are stepping up across the country to work together (even if socially distanced!) to create better-quality green spaces for their neighbourhoods. We can see the impact that these projects are having, such as offering opportunities for residents to come together to create parks and nature-friendly spaces from industrial sites or wasteland. But more needs to be done.

The spaces themselves

We need to ensure that green space is provided for and with people of all backgrounds, with funding provided for community engagement in the projects. Residents and users’ voices must be heard in the management of green spaces to ensure they are inclusive and considerate of each community’s needs (for example, a Muslim community might want areas where women can meet away from men).

Community involvement in the practical management of green space (such as planting and nature conservation) should also be encouraged and resourced, including through approaches such as social prescribing, where health professionals can refer people to non-clinical services in their local area. Social prescribing might include volunteering, sports, arts activities and gardening.

If the full social and health benefits from green spaces are to be realised, then ongoing funding of green spaces and green infrastructure must also include funding for community engagement.

Communities also hold a wealth of expertise on nature conservation, children’s play, outdoor learning and education. These and other resources can be used by local authorities and others, as part of the approach to skills, learning, and better use and management of spaces for people and nature. If the full social and health benefits from green spaces are to be realised, then ongoing funding of green spaces and green infrastructure needs to include funding for community engagement as well.

What resources are needed

Although it clearly is important, money is not the only solution to the problem of green-space deprivation. There should be a legal requirement to protect and enhance the quality of all existing public green space for people and nature. Existing green space can be protected through covenants and measures such as Fields in Trust’s Green Spaces for Good programme.

Requirements to create new green space where provision is lacking should be introduced. England’s land-use planning system should be strengthened, not weakened. Planning reform must ensure that existing parks and green spaces are protected; that good quality green space is part of new developments as standard; and that green spaces and parks are treated as part of the wider public realm, not as isolated oases.

There are lots of great examples of community-led action to create and improve green spaces across the country. We need to help share best-practice information and inspire more people to take action in their community to make this change happen. By doing this, we can create better green spaces that we can all benefit from for many years – for the sake of both our health and mental well-being.

Join us on 10 March 2021 for a panel discussion in which we will be exploring these ideas in more depth, and setting out the steps that need to be taken to put communities at the heart of improving access to green space.