Image from Visit Victoria

It may seem a given that access to green spaces during lockdown delivers tangible well-being benefits for all, but closer study suggests the correlation is not so cut and dry.

The role of urban green space (UGS) in making cities more liveable is well established, but staying resilient during Covid-19 lockdowns and other foreshadowed crises, requires a deeper understanding of the long-run and short-term impacts of delivering accessible green spaces across cityscapes, as well as the challenges of resident-engagement.

Challenging a generally accepted belief in the widespread benefit of urban greening, our most recent research has found a wide range of well-being outcomes of accessible urban green space.

In isolation, urban green space access policies may exacerbate urban inequalities rather than mitigate them

This presents additional complexity to urban planning processes that are typically concerned with providing equitability in access to UGS, i.e. as input.  However, this approach does not necessarily provide equitability in well-being outcomes.

Research reveals residents with lower well-being benefit less than those with higher well-being scores – with positive effects roughly halved where well-being is low.

There is concern that an equitability of inputs approach to urban planning, rather than equitability in outcomes, may lead to inefficient land use and planning practices. A key message is that just cities are not necessarily easily operationalised through conventional approaches to green space provision.  

Who benefits most from Melbourne’s parks?

We conducted an empirical exploration of the relationships between greenspace, accessibility and well-being using Melbourne’s metropolitan area as a case study.

First, we examined green space quality, employing a quality-adjusted UGS accessibility indicator that considered both size and potential crowdedness. This reflects recent findings that size and design elements influence the way users of UGS perceive and benefit from them. Not surprisingly, we find a positive association between overall UGS accessibility and subjective well-being. 

Next, we test what the impact of UGS size is on well-being outcomes. Our measure of size crudely divided all UGS in Melbourne into three equal categories: small, medium and large.

Size and design characteristics remain an essential area for further research, but our results suggest that only large urban green spaces those greater than about 9000 square metres have a significant and consistent effect on subjective well-being.  This resonates with some of the international literature where size characteristics are important for the sensory experience of UGS and the increased likelihood of walking. 

“From an urban planning perspective, one implication is that joining existing green spaces through green corridors (potentially in combination with nature-based solutions such as green walls and roofs) is a more effective method of UGS provision (from a subjective well-being perspective) than a lattice-style (within 10 or 20 minutes) approach to UGS provision.”

Finally, we examine the relative well-being impact of UGS for population groups, including those with self-assessed low and high well-being, respectively.

Quantile regression results reveal residents with lower well-being benefit less than those with higher well-being scores – with positive effects roughly halved where well-being is low. We find well-being responsiveness to UGS access is depended on the initial level of subjective well-being as well as other contextual factors. 

To conclude, we find that the provision of UGS should be high on the planning agenda for various reasons, including climate change, wildlife preservation, biodiversity challenges, and population growth well-being.

For some populations, addressing other urban inequalities is a more urgent priority – however our research shows that where UGS provision is included as part of a comprehensive urban planning approach, all populations can benefit.

How, not just whether, we deliver green spaces matters

In meeting 21st-century urban challenges, we highlighted that how we plan and design UGS is critical for well-being outcomes.

Moreover, our study also shows the well-being effects of UGS is conditioned by effects that may be intrinsic to the individual and/or conditional on a range of other well-being determining effects.

For instance, in the suburbs, where the average level of subjective well-being is low due to other socio-economic determinants (e.g., high unemployment rate, housing challenges), the provision of urban green space may not have the desired outcome unless a hierarchy of needs is prioritised and other policy initiatives are put in place (e.g., creating urban green spaces that facilitate walkable jobs in the suburbs to improve the unemployment rate).

From a planning perspective, homogeneity across different levels of well-being aligns with 20-minute city planning strategies. Providing equality of access (e.g., to services and so on within 20 min) provides a means of enhancing the physical health aspects of neighbourhoods and residents’ well-being.

However, based on our research, if the impact of UGS access is lower for people with lower levels of subjective well-being, then the efficacy of standardised UGS provision as a tool for equity in access is weakened. In fact, rather than moderating spatial inequalities, the provision of standard planning approaches (like access to UGS within 400 m) may exacerbate urban well-being inequalities. 

Given the Covid-19 conditions and unavoidable extended lockdowns in Australian cities, residents are confronting with struggles (e.g. loss of jobs, housing affordability, access to essential needs) that resonate the importance of needs prioritisation of urban policies targeting well-being.

Farahnaz Sharifi is a scholar in the Centre for Urban Transitions. Associate Professor Christian (Andi) Nygaard is a social economist and research theme leader for New Ways of Urban Living. Professor Wendy Stone is Academic Leader of the Housing Futures Research Program within the Centre for Urban Transitions and former director of the AHURI Swinburne Research Centre.

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