In cities with increasing housing intensification planners need to consider equity of access to green spaces when managing competing demands for land use

Opinion: The benefits of green space have been made repeatedly clear, especially for urban residents. As temperatures rise, green spaces have an important part to play in reducing heat islands – hotspots created by buildings and roads that absorb the sun’s heat more than natural environments.

Green spaces also give us a place for recreation and socialising, and help improve our mental and physical wellbeing.

However, gaining access to green space in urban areas isn’t always easy, particularly in cities where housing intensification is increasing. It’s a dilemma that urban planners need to grapple with as pressures mount for accommodation in central city areas.

Even Wellington, a city with a reputation for its green surroundings, can’t avoid the problem.

Over summer, I ran a pilot survey of people living in the Wellington region to gauge attitudes about access to parks and other green spaces in their neighbourhoods.

Among the 772 respondents, those living in the central city area were less likely to be satisfied with the green spaces available to them, and more likely to be concerned the city’s intensification plans would lead to less quality green space for them to use.

Some expressed fears the city would have tightly packed buildings without sufficient green space in between – such as green ‘pocket parks’ or community gardens – or other publicly accessible areas.

In contrast, those living on the city’s leafy periphery were typically very satisfied with the green spaces in their neighbourhood. Results suggest every additional percentage of green space available to residents within a 400-metre buffer around their home tripled the likelihood of a higher level of satisfaction.

These differences point to (another) inequality issue arising from the housing crisis: if you can afford to buy in a leafier suburb, you’re more likely to get the health and other benefits associated with green spaces.

For the people charged with making decisions about the shape of our cities, the findings highlight the importance of integrating ‘greening initiatives’ into housing intensification plans and recognising the many non-monetary benefits of green spaces when conducting city planning.

Not least, green spaces can help create a sense of community. They can also help expose new generations to nature and build understanding of the environment.

Of course, increasing the amount of green space is unlikely to be enough by itself. Quality also matters. As survey respondents said, these areas should be more than “just a green patch” or a “grassy area”.

New Zealand is far from alone in tackling these issues.

Along with colleagues, I’ve carried out research on green space use by residents in three European cities – Brussels, Luxembourg City and Rouen. This research found having green areas close by was important for many, but other factors affected their desire to use them. The perceived quality of the available areas was one of these factors.

The research also found people would travel out of their way to go to their preferred green space, although willingness to do this varied depending on socioeconomic factors. Respondents who were very happy with the quality of their local green spaces also tended to travel less.  

Providing quality green spaces that meet residents’ needs is more likely to lead to extended green space use and give people the benefits that result in time spent outdoors. To benefit from green spaces you need to be able to access or get close to them.

Crucially, urban planners need to consider equity of access to green spaces when managing competing demands for land use in inner-city areas. My pilot survey of Wellington residents suggests proximity to green space is an important factor for many when deciding where to live. But a lot of people simply can’t afford to make it a major criteria in their housing choice.

We also need to do more research to find out about people’s activity patterns when using green spaces and investigate the range of demographic factors that may influence use.

Mirjam Schindler is a lecturer in human geography at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington

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