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Green Spaces for All

For many, the pandemic provided an opportunity to enjoy green spaces – but it also showed how unequal access to nature can be in Britain, from gardens to parks and the privatised countryside.

Lockdown revealed how much we need the outdoors. For the lucky, it meant time spent closer to home – digging for victory or counting the finches on the lawn. But as Mona Bani, co-director at May Project Gardens comments, “while some found this period bordering on pleasant, others found it hell. Covid-19 is one of the most striking social phenomenons we’ve had. On the surface, it was something we faced equally; in reality, it surfaced countless inequalities”. Broadening research reveals that increased exposure to green spaces is beneficial for mental and physical health; it can lead to a healthier immune system, a more favourable heart rate, blood pressure and cholesterol. In fact, Natural England has estimated that £2.1 billion per year could be saved in health costs if everyone had good access to green space.

One of the striking inequalities the pandemic uncovered was access to these kinds of spaces. As it stands, quality time in nature is reserved for the wealthy and white. Research has revealed that white households are four times more likely than black households to have a private or shared garden and balcony. Jamal would typically find sanctuary at May Project’s London-based garden, a safe space for refugees to grow, cook and enjoy a sense of community. But during the lockdown, he found himself stuck in a small room in a housing unit with five others plus key workers. He explained to me “staying in my room every day, watching TV, eating and sleeping too much was bad for my mental health. You need fresh air.” 

Shortly into the lockdown, a Guardian article discovered that London’s coronavirus park closures would hit BAME and low-income communities the most, further revealing that more than a third of London’s wealthiest wards are parkland, dropping to a quarter in the poorest. Data shows that 33% of white people find local green spaces within an easy walking distance, in comparison to 19% of those from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds. It’s no secret that poor quality environments are more likely to result in ill-health and increased pollutants. Air pollution is one of the UK’s most deadly killers and disproportionately affects London’s black communities. As growing evidence links this fact to increased coronavirus infections, we must ask why the greening of deprived areas isn’t seen as a health priority.

While there are only 12,000 Londoners that don’t live within a ten-minute walk to a green space, it’s important to think about what’s available once you get there. As Richard McKeever at Fields in Trust explains, “In affluent areas, there will be more social capital. People are more able to get involved in community ventures such as litter-picking. But a park should be valued by the contribution it makes to the community rather than its maintenance cost.” If a park is not properly looked after it will fall into disrepair and finally disuse. “I think the maintenance of London’s parks is very telling”, says Oge Ejizu, the London Regional Leader of Black Girls Hike. “Lesnes Abbey and Bostall Woods are both in South East London and are surrounded by social housing. On a visit here, I saw the area was riddled with litter, paths were unkempt and the guard rails were broken; you wouldn’t find that in Greenwich Park. Yet if this area was gentrified, you’d suddenly see an unlimited budget made available”. 

Oge worries that this neglection is an indication to the community of what the local and central government thinks of them. Yet, data has found that it’s BAME communities that value these green spaces the most. If parks are to be made accessible to everyone, then they must be put into the hands of the community. As Charise at Solidaritree explains, “involve the people to get to the bottom of what makes a space hostile and work together on the change.” Charise, Lois and Naz started Solidaritree with the aim of creating a network for those underrepresented within the environmental movement. Britain’s green spaces are uninclusive from the way that they’re marketed to how they’re structured. Take the National Trust as an example, “they’re clearly branding themselves to one group of people, who they believe use their spaces more,” Lois comments. “This might be true, but in doing so, you’re isolating others.” 

Communities use outdoor spaces differently, as can be seen in both urban and national parks. “In this country, we have picnic tables designed for the nuclear family of two plus two. However, when communities of colour visit the countryside, it’s often as an extended family”, explains Mohammed Dhalech, founder at Mosaic Outdoors. “They often congregate around food and play music, yet places might not allow BBQs. Individuals also feel discouraged from wearing their cultural dress, feeling that to go on a walk, you need to buy a certain outfit”.

Mosaic Outdoors is an organisation that connects BAME people with the natural world. Mohammed started it because he “noticed that there were not many people like myself either instructing or going out hiking”. In fact, as Julian Glover writes in The Landscape Review, “many communities in modern Britain feel that these landscapes hold no relevance for them. The countryside is seen by black, Asian and minority ethnic groups and white people as a very much “white environment”.” Hardly surprising considering the governing bodies that look after these landscapes are almost all headed by white, retired males. As Mohammed notes, “If you have this lack of representation, how can you understand what other communities need?”

The argument regarding barriers to access is so little acknowledged that when Dwayne Fields quoted The Landscape Review on CountryFile, there was uproar. Internet trolls took to Twitter with the desire to #DefundTheBBC and one Happy Hiker wrote, “For goodness sake, if BAME people want to enjoy the countryside, just go. Do it.” They all, of course, missed the point. As Louisa Adjoa Parker writes, “the countryside is largely free and in an ideal world, available to everyone. Yet simply announcing it open to all ignores the very real barrier of rural racism.” Both Charise and Lois have been treated with suspicion while in rural spaces. “You have to be aware of the problematic stereotypes associated with you. I won’t wear my hood up and would make sure to appear approachable,” explains Lois. “It’s almost cartoonish how nice you have to be,” agrees Charise. 

Currently, only 2% of the UK’s BAME population lives in rural areas. As Beth Collier, a nature allied psychotherapist, writes, “people of colour have tended to gather in cities to feel a sense of safety and community in numbers… experiences of hostility are more intimidating when you feel isolated”. As a result, she describes a “generational disconnect”, leaving these communities without the relevant knowledge. “One of the biggest barriers to access is the lack of information, awareness and understanding”, Mohammed agrees. Mosaic works with communities of all ages, providing them with the skills and equipment they need to be in the outdoors. “Though we do emphasise that you don’t need a £500 jacket just to go for a walk,” he muses.

However, as it stands, being in nature often requires time and money. “The people we’re trying to engage with don’t have cars”, explains Mohammed. “We have to show them that, if you plan in advance, it’s possible to get to these national parks cheaply by public transport”. Ellen Miles founded the campaign Access to Nature is a Human Right because, as she puts it, “as a species, we are increasingly moving away from nature, while at the same time realising how essential it is for our wellbeing.” As she tells me, “you need to have green space around you every day, it’s not just enough to take a trip out into the countryside once a month”. A green recovery has to bring nature into cities in a way that makes it accessible to all.