The past 20 or so years of housing development in England and Wales has decimated community access to green space. That’s according to a new report from think tank the New Economics Foundation (NEF), which has brought together data on the age of housing developments, public green space provision and public perceptions of green space in their local area.
As an academic researching and writing the role of access to nature in health and wellbeing I was shocked by the detail of the report.
“Green space” in this sense means any public area in a town or city that includes plant life or water features (sometimes referred to as blue space), set aside for recreation. This can be a whole park or woodland, street trees or simply a small patch of grass.
The new report points to some stark differences in the accessibility and quality of green space provision depending on when most of the houses in the area were built – and, as the report’s authors point out, the planning laws at the time that governed their design.
It turns out that in general, the newer the housing that dominates an area, the less the total amount of green space within a 1km radius. The most recent generation of housing, built between 2009 and 2021, has up to 40% less local green space than areas where the homes are mainly late 19th- and early 20th-century.
Unsurprisingly then, people living in post-2000 developments are significantly less likely to visit green spaces, a loss the NEF calculates as nine million fewer trips each year. They are also less likely to report having access to a private garden, or “feeling part of nature”. Basically, we’re creating a new generation of neighbourhoods with very little green space, adding to a well-documented decline in pre-existing public green space.
Access to nature is an equality issue
Why does this matter? There is now substantial evidence that points to the importance of green space for human health and wellbeing. Psychological studies suggest that if we spend time in nature regularly, we are more likely to report positive mood and cognition, lower anxiety, higher creativity, mindfulness and social connectedness. These benefits are greater if we have a strong sense of our connection to nature and take the time to notice our surroundings.
It follows that a widespread reduction in everyday nature contact, on the kind of scale reported by the NEF, means the reverse, with the potential to threaten the physical and mental health of thousands, perhaps millions of us.
This is why routine access to nature has become an equality and justice issue, with research highlighting existing inequalities in green space access, and campaign groups calling for local nature access to be established as a legal right.
Surprising? Possibly not. During recent lockdowns, with the usual distractions suddenly out of reach, many of us developed a new or renewed sense of the benefits of time spent in nature.
Good for humans, good for the environment
But there’s another reason, perhaps more surprising, to expose and reverse this decline in access to green space. Psychological research suggests that it also threatens our chances for averting environmental catastrophe, now and in the future.
Generally speaking, the higher the degree of our sense of connection to nature, the stronger our moral concern and care for the environment. This is reflected across a wide range of private and public practices, for example in higher reports of recycling or environmental volunteering. Contact with and connectedness to nature are not quite the same thing, but they tend to be mutually reinforcing – the more time we spend in nature, the more we feel connected to it and vice versa.
A widespread reduction in local green space reduces how often people access nature-rich spaces, which erodes their sense of a connection to nature, and combined these losses affect how much we are committed to care for and protect nature – even how much we notice its decline in the first place.
Potentially we then come full circle – with fewer of us feeling a strong moral environmentalist concern, we become bystanders as the climate and biodiversity crisis deepens, and options for human-nature relationships decline further, apart, perhaps, for the most privileged.
Being charitable to the UK government, we might say this is a case of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing – after all the UK is currently investing over £4 million in pilot “green social prescribing” projects, explicitly promoting the benefits of nature-based health interventions.
However, moves like this are meaningless if we take for granted the access to and quality of nature and natural environments in the first place, while willingly (or otherwise) overseeing its rapid decline. Healthy nature contact requires joined-up public planning and strong investment in infrastructure.
It is time for the government to oblige planners, developers and public bodies to make sure everyone can access and develop a connection with the natural environment. Neighbourhood green and blue space is an essential component of a sustainable transition for the UK, with the potential to help address a crisis in health and wellbeing as well as the wider environment.