Nature for All? How Unequal Access to Green Spaces Impacts Mental Health

Nature for All? How Unequal Access to Green Spaces Impacts Mental Health
May 14, 2024 by: Keisha Pendleton

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Have you ever experienced the calm of a quiet forest? The tranquility of a flowing stream? You’re not alone! May is Mental Health Awareness Month and it is essential to highlight the important role that green spaces contribute to mental well-being. Many people report a sense of wellness when they spend time outdoors. Studies have shown that spending time in green spaces can reduce anxiety, boost mood, and improve overall mental well-being. Even just the smell of dirt has been linked to increases in mood-boosting chemicals!

Natural spaces are important to our mental and physical well-being, and all communities deserve to have equitable access to these green spaces. Unfortunately, not all communities reap the benefits of being in nature. 

People of color and low-income communities are three times more likely to live in areas that lack natural spaces and therefore are not able to access the benefits that nature provides. As a result of historic injustice (redlining, systemic racism), some cities with majority Black populations have less than 5 percent of land dedicated to parkland, compared to the national median of 15 percent. In addition, parks in majority low-income communities are, on average, four times smaller and serve nearly four times more people than parks in high-income communities (Trust for Public Land, 2019). This is what the Center for American Progress calls the Nature Gap.

Furthermore, according to American Forests, decades of redlining and other discriminatory policies have led to a scarcity of trees in neighborhoods with more low-income families and people of color. Studies show that the neighborhoods that were redlined have fewer trees, preventing the people living there from reaping the benefits trees provide. Tree Equity is about ensuring there are trees in every part of every city.

American Forests’ Tree Equity Score Tool indicates whether there are enough trees in a neighborhood for everyone to experience the health, economic and climate benefits that trees provide. In our watershed, the effect of redlining has left a legacy of reduced tree equity in predominantly non-white neighborhoods.

The consequences of this Nature Gap take a toll on the mental, emotional and physical well-being of affected communities. According to the National Recreation and Park Association, lack of access to green spaces has been linked to higher rates of chronic stress and mental health disorders. 

Access to nature is a matter of public health. As with much of our public health system, there are deep racial and economic disparities to overcome to ensure all communities can access the health benefits of public spaces equitably. Fortunately for all of us here in the Anacostia watershed, we have an amazing natural resource right in our own backyard with the Anacostia River and the public parks that surround it. 

While AWS and our partners continue to advocate for funding, policies and programs that expand access to our local natural spaces for all of our community, everyone can play a part in making green spaces and their mental benefits accessible to all. 

So, what can we do? 

First, get involved! Find out about public planning activities in your community. 

Advocate for inclusivity. To work towards universally accessible park design, communities of color should be included as stakeholders in the process of creating and planning parks. 

Learn more about the 11th Street Bridge Park and its equity and community-driven model to ensure inclusive development that supports all communities regardless of income and demographics.

Take care of your own mental health! There are so many ways to get out in the watershed. Join AWS on our recreation and volunteer events. Join our friends at Friends of Anacostia Park for their outdoor events, or make your own plans in a Prince George’s County Park or at a DC Park

Keisha Pendleton

Keisha Pendleton

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