APHA 2016: Improving Urban Health Through Green Spaces

MPH@GW recently attended the American Public Health Association (APHA) 2016 Annual Meeting and Expo. From October 29 to November 2, the Colorado Convention Center hosted more than 12,000 public health professionals, students and advocates for the event. Hundreds of poster sessions, panels and speeches covered topics aligned with the theme of this year’s meeting, “Creating the Healthiest Nation: Ensuring the Right to Health.” Though we wish we could have attended them all, we’ve highlighted some of our favorite conversations here.

For many people, the relationship between health equity and green spaces isn’t immediately apparent. A recent APHA 2016 session, however, explored some of the most convincing arguments for green development as means of improving health.

The APHA Panelists

Louise Chawla, PhD, Professor Emeritus for the Program in Environmental Design at the University of Colorado. Her presentation focused on the importance of access to nature at every scale of urban design.

Natalie Sampson, PhD, MPH, Assistant Professor in the College of Education, Health, and Human Services at University of Michigan — Dearborn. Her presentation focused on how residents in highly vacant Detroit neighborhoods perceived the impact of green infrastructure on health.

Emily Rugel, MPH, PhD candidate in the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia. Her presentation focused on the development of a Natural Space Index as a means of examining equity issues in access to urban natural spaces.

Michelle Kondo, PhD, Research Social Scientist with the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service. Her presentation focused on the impact of green stormwater infrastructure on crime and safety in Philadelphia.

What are Green Spaces?

The term “greening” pertains to the process of incorporating more vegetation into areas where we live, work, play, worship and receive health care. On an individual level, green spaces have been shown to improve performance at close-attention tasks, circulatory mortality rates, conflict management skills, mental wellness and general health. At a community level, research suggests that they can strengthen social ties, reduce violence and crime, and increase a collective sense of community. In addition, housing in greener areas is perceived as more expensive, which can have a positive effect on real estate values.

Moving Beyond Parks

As environmental justice concerns have expanded from fair protection to environmental risks to environmental resources, urban planning has emphasized access to parks. Many of the presenters, however, emphasized that the number of parks may not serve as a reliable indicator of whether a community is reaping the benefits of green space. For instance, low-income and ethnic minorities may have access to parks, but those parks may not be maintained.

“Size, amenities, safety — that’s where we find the big environmental justice disparities,” Chawla said.

Furthermore, positive health outcomes of access to nature are more consistently predicted by regular access, not just proximity to a park. Important as parks are, the benefits of contact with nature extend to other spaces as well, such as green school grounds, green residences and hospital gardens. In short, does the layout of our communities require us to seek out green space or can we access it simply by going about our daily lives?

“We need to move beyond parks…size, amenities, safety — that’s where we find the big environmental justice disparities.” — Louise Chawla, Professor Emeritus for the Program in Environmental Design at the University of Colorado

In addition, Rugel noted, not all green spaces in a community are accessible. Private golf courses, for instance, may take up a lot of acreage and exist in close proximity to a community, but that doesn’t mean everyone benefits.

“We need to move beyond parks,” Chawla said. This concept, she said, goes hand-in-hand with greening as part of a broader social equity agenda that seeks to improve things like affordable housing, rent regulation and public transport.

Transforming Vacancy into Productivity

So what are some examples of cases where we’ve moved “beyond parks”? One example lies in our approach to modifying vacant spaces. Just as well-maintained green spaces can improve health, vacant ones — such as empty lots and abandoned houses — can threaten it. These areas tend to experience an increased number of safety threats and adverse environmental exposure opportunities such as trash, debris and pestilence that can spread disease.

Sampson and Kondo spoke on the potential for transforming vacant areas of derelict neighborhoods and communities using strategic green development plans. Sampson and Kondo’s work focused on vacant areas in Detroit and Philadelphia, respectively. The two cities have experienced varying stages of migration away from the cities, white flight and economic decline that have resulted in a higher number of vacant or abandoned spaces.

In Detroit, Sampson and her team have been working with green infrastructure — a specific type of greening with the intent of managing stormwater — to combat vacancies. This program was designed to better understand whether green spaces that improve water quality could see a strong return on investment. The case for green infrastructure in this region could become even stronger if Detroit institutes stormwater fees; a system like the one Sampson is testing could offset those for low-income residents.

“Can place-based or nature-based interventions contribute to a culture of health and prevent chronic disease, violence and injury in a way that does not displace existing residents?” — Michelle Kondo, Research Social Scientist with the USDA Forest Service]

In addition to vacancies and stormwater infrastructure, Kondo’s work in Philadelphia focused on the power of residential appearance. She and her colleagues found that neighborhoods that updated window and door treatments saw a reduction in violence and safety issues.

Kondo also raised an excellent question around the long-term implications of green development: “Can place-based or nature-based interventions contribute to a culture of health and prevent chronic disease, violence and injury in a way that does not displace existing residents?”

Lessons to Keep in Mind Moving Forward

Throughout the discussion, the presenters highlighted important themes for urban planners and public health professionals to keep in mind as they consider green development in their own regions.

Engaging the community: “Perceptions really matter and determine how people use these spaces,” Sampson said. Understanding whether those living in the community are actually benefiting from green development is crucial in determining the success or failure of the initiative.

Ensuring long-term maintenance: A green space that falls into disrepair due to lack of maintenance may offset progress or even aggravate existing inequity. One of the unanswered questions, Sampson said, pertains to how we hold decision-makers accountable to the long-term success of green spaces.

The danger of going too green: On the other end of the spectrum, a green initiative that is too successful could lead to gentrification and possibly displace the communities it originally intended to benefit.

How have you seen green spaces used in your community? Where do opportunities for engagement and improvement exist when it comes to green urban neighborhoods? Tell us on FacebookTwitter or LinkedIn.

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