The Covid-19 pandemic has further exposed the inequitable access to public green space and parks for London’s population. Mayor Sadiq Khan has made green space a priority for the city, which has seen London become the world’s first National Park City, with the aim of making the city greener, healthier and wilder.
Access to green space is vital for public health. The multiplicity of benefits for physical and mental health, wellbeing, and social cohesion, as well as the profound environmental impacts on pollution levels and offsetting carbon emissions, are significant. Living within close proximity of public green space also encourages us to be more active. There has been an increased focus on research of the benefits of green space, as these factors are beginning to be more widely recognised. In 2017, the city released a report which claims that for every pound spent on public green space, the return to the taxpayer amounts to 27 pounds in terms of health benefits, air pollution levels and property values. Greater London has an estimated 8 million trees, while public green space covers 16.8% of the city. Ultimately, this portrays the city of London as a clean, green vision.
However, this fails to depict the reality of the inequitable distribution of public green space in London, and the implications of this for overall social inequalities. Certain boroughs of London benefit from a vast amount of public green spaces, whilst others are lacking in this valuable resource. London’s parks are not equally distributed within the city’s boroughs, and the alarming truth is that Londoners’ access to the 27 pounds worth of benefits, as discussed above, is inequitably distributed. An article from The Guardian highlights that Londoners living in deprived areas and those from BAME backgrounds have reduced access to public green spaces and private gardens on average, drawing attention to the link between the number of parks and the socioeconomic population in London wards. The wealthier wards had a higher proportion of public space on average, at 35%, compared to 25% in the most deprived areas. This trend can be observed when comparing boroughs in London: the lower-income borough of Tower Hamlets, which has one of the highest air pollution levels in London, provides 300 hectares of park space for its population of 317,000, contrasting with wealthier Kensington, which has 200 hectares of park space for about half the population size. This social injustice is further exposed by the fact that on average around half the residents in the poorest decile in London were BAME, in comparison to the proportion of BAME people in the richest decile, at 20%.
It is important to highlight the implications of Covid-19 on these social inequalities, given that poorer Londoners were disproportionately impacted by the lockdown and subsequent park closures. In a city where the majority reside in flats not having a garden as well as a lack of access to public green space had serious consequences for people’s leisure and health outcomes. These issues of social inequity are further pronounced in poorer communities, which tend to be situated within poorer quality natural environments with fewer environmental amenities. This highlights that access to public green space is socially distributed. While speculations regarding the post-Covid-19 climate circulate the news and media, the pandemic should generate discussions regarding parks and open spaces which have been continually neglected by policymakers and planners or gone unnoticed by urban residents.
As London becomes greener, healthier, and wilder as the world’s first National Park City, it is important to recognise the extreme consequences of policies that encourage urban nature developments yet ignore the broader social-equity agenda, specifically referring to ‘green gentrification’. This social process involves the marginalisation or displacement of minority and poor communities, who rarely benefit from the advantages of new green cites and neighbourhoods. As a result of new urban nature such as parks, the landscape becomes more attractive to potential gentrifiers who price out long-term residents. This results in the further disadvantaging of already marginalised groups.
We at JAN Trust have been supporting marginalised communities in North London for the past 31 years. Through creating stable community networks, our work is fundamental for the safety and wellbeing of the women we support, and for communities as a whole.