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Realising the Value of Green Space: A Planners' Perspective on the COVID-19 Pandemic


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The COVID-19 virus has quickly become a top risk for public health worldwide, with quarantine and self-isolation as its main measures of prevention. While it is necessary to prevent further infections and protect the population, the considerable impact of such measures on health and wellbeing of people is undeniable. Lockdown measures have limited the access of people to services and facilities outside of their local areas, whilst lowering the intensity of their usual physical activity. As a result, the greenspace within neighbourhoods has become more important than ever in hosting people’s outdoor activities. Difficult and uncertain times as these show the importance of urban planning and design and the need for the inclusion of greenspace when planning and designing neighbourhoods. In this viewpoint, we elaborate our perspective, as planners, on the proximity and quality considerations of greenspace, which can have significant impacts on physical and mental health of individuals and communities during this pandemic. We also discuss the ways with which planning can improve greenspace for a healthier post-pandemic time.
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Negar Ahmadpoor and Sina Shahab
Realising the value of green space:
a planners’ perspective on the
COVID-19 pandemic
Negar Ahmadpoor is a Lecturer in Urban Planning and Design, Anglia Ruskin University, Department of
Architecture and Built Environment, Chelmsford Campus, Bishop Hall Lane, Chelmsford, CM1 1SQ, United
Kingdom; Sina Shahab is a Lecturer at the School of Geography and Planning, Cardi University, Glamorgan
Building, King Edward VII Avenue, Cardi, Wales, CF10 3WA, United Kingdom; email: negar.ahmadpoor@anglia.; shahabs@cardi
While the current trends of rapid urbanisation and globalisation have improved
the lives of many people worldwide in the last few decades, the negative side eects
of such trends are becoming more apparent. Physical and mental health issues, for
example, are emerging at a rapid pace and health systems around the world, particu-
larly in densely populated areas, often do not have adequate capacity to address the
issues (Barton and Rogerson, 2017; Douglas et al., 2017). The COVID-19 pandemic
has exacerbated these issues further as millions of people around the world have been
living under various degrees of travel restriction that might last for a considerable
period of time (Pfeerbaum and North, 2020). In an attempt to curb health-related
issues, planning and design interventions concerning the allocation of space in urban
settings have recently gained traction (Barton and Grant, 2013). Access to green space
has been identified as a necessary component of healthy urban life as such spaces
are proved to have positive impacts on the health and well-being of individuals and
communities (Sallis et al., 2016; PHE, 2017; Sanchez and Liamputtong, 2017; WHO,
2017). Previous studies have identified the positive correlation between increased
health issues and the absence of green space in urban contexts (Barton and Rogerson,
2017). Type-II diabetes and heart diseases are some of the so-called ‘lifestyle diseases’
that are prevalent in areas where green space is absent. This is often due to poor
planning and design interventions, as well as the neglect or lack of knowledge of
their necessity. The England Healthy New Towns programme implemented by the
National Health Service (NHS) of England emphasises the value of including green
space when planning and designing urban communities, as it aids with the prevention
of health issues (NHS, 2017).
The COVID-19 virus has quickly become a top risk for public health world-
wide, with quarantine and self-isolation as its main measures of prevention. While
it is necessary to prevent further infections and protect the population, the consider-
able impact of such measures on the health and well-being of people is undeniable
(Pfeerbaum and North, 2020). Lockdown measures have limited the access of people
2Negar Ahmadpoor and Sina Shahab
to services and facilities outside their local areas, whilst lowering the intensity of their
usual physical activity. As a result, the green space within neighbourhoods has become
more important than ever in hosting people’s outdoor activities (see Figure 1). Dicult
and uncertain times as these show the importance of urban planning and design
and the need for the inclusion of green space when designing neighbourhoods. Of
particular importance are the proximity and quality considerations of green space,
which can have significant impacts on the physical and mental health of individuals
and communities.
The proximity of green space
Proximity to green space (i.e. the state of being near to green space) is one of the focus
areas when studying their eects. Existing studies have explored the correlation between
the access of individuals to green space and their levels of health and well-being. There
is a consensus among scholars that access to green space in urban areas positively aects
individuals, resulting in higher levels of physical activity and healthier habits and behav-
iours, as well as improved health outcomes (Barton and Rogerson, 2017). There has
been research which attempts to answer the question of the correct proximity of green
space to residential areas that are most beneficial to the surrounding population (Ord
et al., 2013). The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the existing issues of urban
planning and design that have failed to address the scarcity of green space. During
the pandemic, many countries restricted travel and only allowed people to stay in their
locality. However, urban green space is not equally distributed among individuals and
communities. Those who live near green space can receive the full benefits associated
with green space, but not all people have a neighbourhood park within a ten-minute
Figure 1 People in Chelmsford Central Park, Essex, UK
Source: Authors
3Realising the value of green space
walk from home. Such proximity is of particular importance for older people, children
and people with disabilities. The communities where green space was not prioritised or
accounted for will not be able to reap the benefits required for their physical and mental
health needs.
Similar to other public goods, public parks will be underprovided without inter-
ventions in the market. In other words, given that public parks do not bring monetary
value and take up large swaths of land, there is little incentive for self-interested private
developers to provide them within a free market with no government intervention. As
a result, the land uses that create higher land values (e.g. housing and commercial
uses) are often prioritised, at the cost of shrinking green and open spaces. This has
led to a shortage of green space in many city centres, which also comes with reduced
levels of mental health and physical activity (Ord et al., 2013). In a situation where
travelling outside people’s locality is discouraged or prohibited, access to green space
has become even more challenging, or even impossible, for some people (see Figure 2).
This can potentially lead to major impacts on people who are isolated and do not have
space for a proper outlet. Although this is a more serious issue ‘during’ the pandemic,
it will not simply disappear ‘after’ the pandemic, when the restrictions are lifted. The
negative eects might not be easily noticeable, yet the issue will persist, and planning
policies should be implemented to help create green space for neighbourhoods that do
not contain them. This pandemic has brought to our attention the impacts of social
inequality on public health and exposed the social and economic dierences of quality
of life. Those people who live in deprived areas are disproportionately influenced by
lack of access to green space (The Guardian, 2020). Also, large numbers of people are
observed entering parks sometimes against guidelines, which highlights the problem
of not having enough green space at a local level for a rapidly growing population (see
Figure 3). The proximity of green space is not the only concern when designing and
planning an urban green space; the quality of the space is just as important.
The quality of green space
The other factor that is accounted for when looking at green space is its quality.
Studies show that quality is just as important as the amount of space available, if not
more important (Feng and Astell-Burt, 2018). This information is valuable for urban
planning as it allows us to compare green space in wealthy and poorer communities,
allowing us to dierentiate the data and better understand how to improve the well-
being of communities. Communities with lower socio-economic status are usually
surrounded by poorer-quality green space and receive fewer benefits that are obtained
from green space. This means that just because a neighbourhood has many parks
or large parks in its proximity, it does not automatically acquire all of the benefits
that come with green space. For example, when a park is large, but is littered and all
4Negar Ahmadpoor and Sina Shahab
of its commodities are poorly maintained, it is much less eective at delivering the
positives associated with green space. On the contrary, a smaller park that is regularly
cleaned and well maintained will be much more eective in providing benefits to the
surrounding population. The result of a study conducted by Sugiyama et al. (2008)
showed that individuals who had perceived the quality of their local green space
as high often had higher physical and mental scores. They used survey data along
with mental and physical health scores. The scores were derived from several varia-
bles: perceived quality of neighbourhood green space, walking for recreation and
transport, social coherence, local social interaction and socio-demographic variables.
This contrasts with the present situation of the COVID-19 pandemic in which public
services (e.g. schools and community centres) are cut back to protect the citizens and
people are left with limited opportunities for socialising and support. Yet the adverse
eect is the increase of stress, anxiety and other mental issues. These studies show that
planning and design intervention can alleviate the pressure on the health system by
having positive eects on community members, simply through the use of available
green space. Although it is dicult to calculate an exact monetary value of the avail-
ability of green space, for example in terms of a reduction in the need for medical
services, the studies show that average community health will improve along with the
Figure 2 People who do not have
access to local green space use
their balconies for their physical
activities, Chelmsford, Essex, UK
Source: Authors
Figure 3 Large numbers of people using green space in
Chelmsford Central Park, Essex, UK
Source: Authors
5Realising the value of green space
availability of quality green space. Yet the last decade has seen major budget cuts to
parks, meaning that not only is quantity a problem in countries like the UK, but also
that quality is suering (The Guardian, 2020). As lack of funding at a local-authority
level is forcing sta cuts and reducing basic maintenance of benches, tables and
playgrounds, the quality of green space rapidly declines. Now, during a pandemic, at
a time when green space is extremely valuable to keep up the morale of communi-
ties, the value of proper planning, designing and managing of green space is evident.
Lessons to learn from the pandemic about the necessity and
value of green space
What is obvious from this collection of studies is that, without a doubt, green space
provides benefits for people’s health and well-being that are dicult to obtain in other
ways. Hopefully, this pandemic will increase the appreciation of parks, trails and nature
in general, resulting in green space being more highly considered in future urban
planning and design. The NHS in England has already begun looking into the impor-
tance of healthy towns, but it should be implemented on a larger scale to promote
healthy lifestyles and habits. After the pandemic, and once social distancing is a thing
of the past, initiatives such as community gardens would greatly benefit all citizens, as
shown in numerous studies. Some of the benefits from community gardens are social
Figure 4 Realising the potentials of urban green space through planning and design interventions
that can lead to a healthier post-pandemic world
Source: Authors
6Negar Ahmadpoor and Sina Shahab
cohesion, improved physical capability and healthier eating and living habits, among
many others (Sanchez and Liampattong, 2017). In addition to improving future urban
planning, cities should look into creating green space in existing communities in areas
where a shortage of green space has been identified. This would increase the overall
health of the community and improve living standards. The urban lifestyle is defined
by rumbling grey cities with skyscrapers and massive buildings; however, it is undeni-
able that humans require green space to properly function and maintain good mental
and physical health. In a post-pandemic world, urban planners and designers must
prioritise green space in their plans and designs.
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Background Experiments and large-scale epidemiological studies indicate the importance of green space for mental health. However, little research has been conducted to elucidate whether these mental health benefits are more dependent upon the quantity or quality of the green space. Methods Symptoms of psychological distress were measured in 3897 women who did not change neighbourhood up to 15 years postpartum using the Kessler 6 psychological distress scale from 2004 onwards. The percentage land-use of the neighbourhood was used to ascertain a measure of green space quantity. A Likert scale was used to measure green space quality in response to the statement “there are good parks, playgrounds and play spaces in this neighbourhood.” Multilevel negative binomial growth curve regression models were used to examine the patterning of symptoms of psychological distress across the postpartum period in relation to green space quantity and quality, adjusting for person-level and geographical markers of confounding. The same variables were also fitted in multilevel logistic regressions to examine the odds of reporting serious mental illness (as defined by K6 scores ≥ 13 out of 24). Results Symptoms of psychological distress were fewer among women who agreed (rate ratio (RR) 0.95, 95%CI 0.91 to 0.98) and strongly agreed (RR 0.89, 95%CI 0.85 to 0.93) local parks were good quality. The odds of reporting serious mental illness were also lower among women who agreed (odds ratio (OR) 0.88, 95%CI 0.77 to 1.00) and strongly agreed (OR 0.74, 95%CI 0.64 to 0.86) local parks were good quality. No association was found between green space quantity and symptoms of psychological distress or the odds of reporting serious mental illness. Conclusions This study suggests it may be how mothers perceive green space nearby and what those spaces enable them to do, rather than simply how much there is overall, that is important for promoting mental health in the postpartum period. In conclusion, community consultation is likely to be a crucial part of strategies that maximise the health benefits of urban greening for everyone.
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There is an urgent global need for accessible and cost-effective pro-mental health infrastructure. Public green spaces were officially designated in the 19th century, informed by a belief that they might provide health benefits. We outline modern research evidence that greenspace can play a pivotal role in population-level mental health.
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In recognition that the coming century will see a substantial majority of the world's population living in urban areas, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations have developed policy frameworks and guidance which promote the increased provision of urban green space for population health. However, these undertakings do not provide specific guidance for urban policy in terms of the particular design attributes required to tackle lifestyle illnesses and to promote well-being in urban populations. Furthermore, green spaces have generally been treated as a homogenous environment type. In order to address these weaknesses, this paper collates and reviews the evidence linking health, well-being and green space using a life-course approach. The literature generally endorses the view that urban green spaces, as part of the wider environmental context, promote health and well-being across the life course. Based on the evidence, cohort-specific and cross-cutting design interventions are identified and a general integrated green space framework for health and well-being is proposed. This analytical lens facilitates distillation of a vast quantum of research and the formulation of specific planning and design guidance for the provision of more inclusive green spaces that respond to the varying needs of people across all life-course stages.
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There has been considerable work done in recent years exploring the value of urban green space for health and wellbeing. Urban green spaces provide environmental benefits through their effects on negating urban heat, offsetting greenhouse gas emissions, and attenuating storm water. They also have direct health benefits by providing urban residents spaces for physical activity and social interaction, and allowing psychological restoration to take place. Consequently, there is a real need to understand the mechanisms by which these benefits accrue. Previously, much of the focus has been on the characteristics of the urban green space that are likely to influence its use, such as its accessibility, quality, facilities, attractiveness, and security. This assumes a causal relationship, when in reality the relationship is more complex and multifactorial. It is more likely that it is the functionality of the green space, be it for exercise or sociocultural activities, rather than its character, which translates to the reported benefits. Challenges exist, such as competing urban planning priorities, economic considerations, and market forces. There is thus a need for urban planning to match the health benefits sought with the needs of the community and the functionality that the urban green space will serve.
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There is accumulating evidence that greater availability of green space in a neighbourhood is associated with health benefits for the local population. One mechanism proposed for this association is that green space provides a venue for, and therefore encourages, physical activity. It has also been suggested that socio-economic health inequalities may be narrower in greener areas because of the equalised opportunity for physical activity green spaces provide. However, research exploring associations between the availability of green space and physical activity has produced mixed results. Limits to the assessment of the type and amount of physical activity which occurs specifically in green space may account for these mixed findings. This observational study was therefore concerned with the extent to which green space is a venue for physical activity and whether this could account for narrower socio-economic health inequalities in greener neighbourhoods. Secondary analysis of cross sectional data on 3679 adults (16+) living in urban areas across Scotland matched with a neighbourhood level measure of green space availability. Associations between green space availability and both total physical activity, and activity specifically within green space, were explored using logistic regression models. Interactions between socio-economic position and physical activity were assessed. All models adjusted for age, sex and household income. The availability of green space in a neighbourhood was not associated with total physical activity or that specifically in green space. There was no evidence that income-related inequalities in physical activity within green space were narrower in greener areas of Scotland. Physical activity may not be the main mechanism explaining the association between green space and health in Scotland. The direct effect of perceiving a natural environment on physiological and psychological health may offer an alternative explanation.
Community gardens are growing in popularity as a strategy to effectively deal with population health at a local level. There is a need to gather information about the health-related benefits of community gardens for people living in a rural locale. This paper discusses the health-related benefits of rural community gardens. We adopted a qualitative approach to examine these issues. Ten participants, eight females and two males, aged between 50 and 82, who have participated in a community garden located in South Gippsland, Victoria, for a minimum of 12 months, took part in this study. Semi-structured interviews that lasted between 30 and 60 min were conducted to explore the perspectives and lived experiences of the participants. Thematic analysis was utilised to analyse the data. We situate our discussion in this paper within the therapeutic landscape theory. Findings indicate that there is a range of health-related benefits associated with participation in rural community gardens, including physical, nutritional, social and psychological. Despite these benefits, the participants wished to see some improvements that could attract more people in rural areas to participate in community gardens. Given the paucity of research available regarding rural community gardens, future research should continue to develop an understanding of these rural sites, especially given the ever-growing popularity of community gardens Australia-wide.
Background: Physical inactivity is a global pandemic responsible for over 5 million deaths annually through its effects on multiple non-communicable diseases. We aimed to document how objectively measured attributes of the urban environment are related to objectively measured physical activity, in an international sample of adults. Methods: We based our analyses on the International Physical activity and Environment Network (IPEN) adult study, which was a coordinated, international, cross-sectional study. Participants were sampled from neighbourhoods with varied levels of walkability and socioeconomic status. The present analyses of data from the IPEN adult study included 6822 adults aged 18-66 years from 14 cities in ten countries on five continents. Indicators of walkability, public transport access, and park access were assessed in 1·0 km and 0·5 km street network buffers around each participant's residential address with geographic information systems. Mean daily minutes of moderate-to-vigorous-intensity physical activity were measured with 4-7 days of accelerometer monitoring. Associations between environmental attributes and physical activity were estimated using generalised additive mixed models with gamma variance and logarithmic link functions. Results: Four of six environmental attributes were significantly, positively, and linearly related to physical activity in the single variable models: net residential density (exp[b] 1·006 [95% CI 1·003-1·009]; p=0·001), intersection density (1·069 [1·011-1·130]; p=0·019), public transport density (1·037 [1·018-1·056]; p=0·0007), and number of parks (1·146 [1·033-1·272]; p=0·010). Mixed land use and distance to nearest public transport point were not related to physical activity. The difference in physical activity between participants living in the most and least activity-friendly neighbourhoods ranged from 68 min/week to 89 min/week, which represents 45-59% of the 150 min/week recommended by guidelines. Interpretation: Design of urban environments has the potential to contribute substantially to physical activity. Similarity of findings across cities suggests the promise of engaging urban planning, transportation, and parks sectors in efforts to reduce the health burden of the global physical inactivity pandemic. Funding: Funding for coordination of the IPEN adult study, including the present analysis, was provided by the National Cancer Institute of National Institutes of Health (CA127296) with studies in each country funded by different sources.
OBJECTIVES: Local availability of green space has been associated with a wide range of health benefits. Possible causative mechanisms underpinning the green space and health relationship include the provision of physical activity opportunities, the stress-relieving effects of nature and the facilitation of social contacts. This study sought to investigate whether urban green space was related to individual-level health outcomes, and whether levels of physical activity were likely to be a mediating factor in any relationships found. STUDY DESIGN: Cross-sectional analysis of anonymized individual health survey responses. METHODS: Neighbourhood-level green space availability was linked to 8157 respondents to the New Zealand Health Survey 2006/07 on the basis of their place of residence. Adjusted multilevel models were constructed for four health outcomes which are plausibly related to green space via physical activity: cardiovascular disease; overweight; poor general health; and poor mental health (Short Form 36). RESULTS: The greenest neighbourhoods had the lowest risks of poor mental health [odds ratio (OR) 0.81, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.66-1.00]. Cardiovascular disease risk was reduced in all neighbourhoods with >15% green space availability (e.g. OR 0.80, 95% CI 0.64-0.99 for those with 33-70% green space), However, a dose-response relationship was not found. Green space availability was not related to overweight or poor general health. Overall, levels of physical activity were higher in greener neighbourhoods, but adjustment for this only slightly attenuated the green space and health relationships. CONCLUSIONS: Neighbourhood green space was related to better cardiovascular and mental health in a New Zealand Health Survey, independent of individual risk factors. Although physical activity was higher in greener neighbourhoods, it did not fully explain the green space and health relationship.