Higher levels of environmental risk are often found in disadvantaged population subgroups, leading to a need for targeted environmental and intersectoral action to protect these groups and achieve environmental justice. The quality of the environment varies significantly across the world, but also between countries, regions, and neighbourhoods within cities. Whether you benefit from a high-quality local environment or suffer the impacts of pollution depends on where you live and work.
High-rise buildings, narrow roads, and a lack of green space are all characteristics of urban city life. And economically disadvantages people are the most likely to live in such areas. It is estimated that 23% of all global deaths (and 26% of deaths among children under 5 years old) are due to modifiable environmental factors, but the distribution of environmental risks and benefits is far from equal. In many cases, there is evidence that this impact has a proportionally greater burden on the most deprived population groups in society, as they tend to be more strongly exposed to environmental threats.
Regular measures of harmful traffic noise and air pollution vary depending on where you live. In UK cities, affluent areas are less polluted than more deprived areas. Even within the same neighbourhood, traffic noise and air pollution vary considerably. As a rule of thumb, the more congested and the closer a road is to our home, the higher the concentration of pollution on our doorstep.
This means that people who live on busy and noisy high streets – who have lower incomes – carry the burden of both environmental and economic hardships and pay the price with their health. Children, the elderly and those with chronic illnesses are most likely to be affected by pollution. Environmental inequality, like many other forms of inequality, is often invisible, and has been all too easy for politicians to ignore. In the Uk when 8-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah died of air pollution, it became obvious that minority groups are especially at risk of dangers of the increased carbon emissions. The case highlighted how economically disadvantaged people are more likely to be exposed to toxic air, with children from poor background 4.2 more likely to get sick because of high levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution and anywhere in the UK.
WHO estimates that air pollution kills 500 000 people each year in the European Region, making it the most important environmental threat in the Region. Air pollution is especially high in areas with industrial use and intense transport activities, which often overlap with socially deprived areas. Numerous European studies have shown that air quality tends to be worst in the areas where the most deprived populations live.
Air pollution is a growing threat to the wellbeing of people in the Asia-Pacific region, especially in China, India, and South-East Asia. The region’s rapid industrialisation, urbanidation and rising vehicle ownership is driving this upward trend. Some cities have become notorious for smog and highly detrimental health impacts, including premature death. Indoor air pollution is also a serious health issue in the region’s poorer areas, both rural and urban. In South-East Asia, 62 per cent of households use wood or charcoal for cooking, while 32 per cent of households rely on highly polluting kerosene and oil lamps. Studies in cities in Vietnam found that respiratory illnesses were twice as common in low-income households as in high-income ones. A study of China’s Jiangsu province found that townships with a higher percentage of rural migrants (a disadvantaged group due to their lack of formal residency in urban areas) are more likely to be exposed to higher levels of air pollution.
According to Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA), 1000 people die from air pollution annually in Ghana. Accra has been attributed to indiscriminate burning of waste, fumes from vehicles and unclean cooking in less affluent areas in the city and other regions in Ghana. Some estimates say the population of Greater Accra will reach 10 million by 2037, a significant rise from 4 million people who called it home in 2010. But some worry that parks and green spaces-already at a premium in Accra-are falling victim to urbanisation, as private landowners and the state look for room to build.
Denying access to parks is not uncommon in Accra. At the 12-acre Efua Sutherland Children's Park, sometimes visitors are turned away. The family of the playwright whom the public park is named after, say they have had to campaign to stop privatisation efforts and after years of government neglect of the children's park, now run their own small private non-profit park. But many private parks are reserved for events, such as weddings and parties, or like the Legon Botanical Gardens, charge an entrance fee, unaffordable to some.
In the US, the chasm is more evident; a history of redlining – where services are refused based on race – has meant Black Americans have ended up living in urban areas with poorer infrastructure, including less access to nature spaces. Neighbourhoods that were redlined have fewer trees – meaning they don’t get the health benefits of nature and the towns are much warmer, as they cannot benefit from shade and transpiration cooling. The effects of this are obvious when you consider that extreme heat kills more than 1,300 people in the United States every year. Studies also show that an abundance of trees can help deter crime. Researchers found that for every 10% increase in tree canopy cover, there was a 15% decrease in the violent crime, and a 14% fall in the property crime rate. But communities of colour don’t always have access to amenities such as a huge abundance of trees and the benefits that come with it. ‘Land accounted for 70% of the price of a home by 2016 – and of course, the closer a home is to decent infrastructure, like properly funded schools, public transportation and green space, the more it costs.’ So, working class groups many of whom are ethnic minorities end up in these natureless areas due to the cost of living in green environment. Research from the Chartered Association of Building Engineers in the UK found that in urban areas Black and minority ethnic people tend to have access to less local green space – and the space they do have is of a poorer quality. Their research found that areas that have almost no Black and minority residents have six times as many parks as places where more than 40% of the population are Black and other ethnic minority backgrounds.
Importance of Green Space
A greater abundance of green space in urban areas can provide fresher air, abundant space for leisure and increase mental health. Trees are vital in the fight against climate change. They remove carbon dioxide from the air, storing carbon in the trees and soil and releasing oxygen into the atmosphere. In Lagos, Nigeria, Kumasi, Ghana and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, urban greenery covers 3%, 7% and 1% of the total land area, respectively. At the same time, urban greenery is seen as increasingly important, not only in terms of improving psychological wellbeing, but also in the face of the climate crisis: trees and green areas keep cities cool and combat air pollution.
Spending time in green spaces has been shown to produce levels and patterns of chemicals in the brain associated with low stress and positive impacts on blood pressure6. Positive links have also been demonstrated between how well people perform at attention-demanding tasks and time spent, either beforehand or during, in green space. Across Europe, approximately 1 in every 1 in every 15 deaths is associated with a lack of physical activity. In the UK, only one third of the population achieves the recommended level of exercise and the impact of this on our health is estimated to have a direct economic cost of £1 billion per year. Green areas encourage physical activity by providing a pleasant environment in which to exercise; linear woodland trails encourage walking and cycling, whilst large sport and community parks encourage more formal physical activity. Where green space is available, the socioeconomic position of the local population does not affect how frequently it is used, implying that where accessible green space is provided it will be used and may help to reduce socioeconomic health inequalities16. Urban green spaces provide pleasant areas to relax and socialise, promoting greater levels of social activity and stronger neighbourhood relationships. This can be particularly important in maintaining a high quality of life for elderly people.
In urban areas, the impermeable materials used for roads and pavements mean that rain is not absorbed and remains on the surface. During periods of heavy rainfall this water accumulates and when the drainage capacity of the area is exceeded, flooding will occur. In contrast, vegetated surfaces can intercept and store water, reducing the volume of rainwater run-off. Benefits from individual trees are maximised if they are planted in tree pits containing permeable soils able to absorb additional water, or structural soils that facilitate the growth of tree roots beneath pavements and roads. A further consequence of high levels of surface water run-off is that rainwater washes pollutants away from the surfaces it falls onto, transporting them into water courses. This can be detrimental to water quality in streams, rivers and lakes and lead to high pollutant loading at water treatment facilities.
The creation, maintenance and management of green space also generates employment opportunities and may have indirect benefits to local economies by encouraging further investment and property development in the area.
What can we do to bridge the gap?
More urban green spaces, More Inclusive Cities
Any land covered in vegetation – such as parks, woods, cemeteries, playing fields and street trees – is green space. Typically, you don’t find many cars zipping through parks. This may sound obvious, but fewer vehicles in greener areas means less pollution sources, and lower levels of pollution. Favourably, large, and open green spaces allow air pollutants to disperse rather than becoming trapped and reaching toxic concentrations between buildings. What’s more, vegetation can control pollution and help purify the air.
Living in greener environs is associated with lower likelihood of disease and reduced risk of premature death and might also be linked with a whole host of benefits throughout life. We know that to live a healthy life, there are many factors within our control, such as exercise and diet. However, living in greener and healthier neighbourhoods is often out of our hands.
Green space can help make low-income neighbourhoods less vulnerable to climate and health risks by reducing local temperatures, improving air quality, and mitigating flooding. For instance, in Buenos Aires, environmental restoration and re-greening of Lake Soldati is part of a multifaceted strategy to reduce flood risk in low-income areas of the city.
Green space can also deliver additional benefits that may be particularly important in underserved neighbourhoods, like providing areas for leisure and community life, creating safer, more liveable street, and reducing building energy costs linked to cooling.
Cities can take three crucial steps to make sure that the health, economic and environmental benefits of urban green spaces become drivers of increased social equity.
1. Establish Strong Political Leadership
Municipalities should establish strong political leadership that prioritizes underserved communities in urban green infrastructure projects and protects long-term social benefits from short-term economic interests. This can include proactively targeting neighbourhood residents when hiring for the construction and maintenance of green infrastructure. For example, The One Soul One Tree mangroves restoration campaign in Indonesia provided a new income source for residents in addition to creating environmental benefits.
In addition, Mayor Tri Rismaharini in Surabaya, Indonesia, launched The One Soul One Tree campaign with the twin focus of enhancing city forests and creating means of income for residents in poverty along the city’s beaches. In addition to protecting 5,000 mangrove trees, the project encouraged residents to harvest syrup from mangroves to create batik (Indonesian dyed fabric) and other products, creating a new source of income for residents.
2. Engage Communities Meaningfully
Proactive and meaningful community engagement is essential to ensuring local buy-in and agency in restoration and conservation projects. For instance, the Equitable Development Plan for Washington, D.C.’s 11th St Bridge Park was created through iterative rounds of community engagement, including brainstorming sessions with key stakeholders, large public sessions and online consultation. This allowed the initial focus on affordable housing to broaden and include cultural and political equity, workforce development and small business enterprises.
Community engagement, however, should not mean depending on residents and private property owners to plant and maintain new trees. This approach tends to be most effective in more richer communities where residents have the financial resources to buy and care for young trees, this is commonly seen in affluent communities in UK where resident pay for service charges to get private companies maintain their greenspace. Partnering with local and trusted organizations can be a critical strategy to build trust and ensure that communication and participation techniques are appropriate and effective.
3. Develop Innovative Funding Models
Equitable urban green planning requires innovative funding to help city or local governments put green spaces in underserved neighbourhoods, while protecting community ownership to prevent gentrification. One way to do this is with impact bonds, which allow municipalities to share risk with investors, reducing their liability and financing costs for future projects.
In Atlanta, US impact bonds is used to protect the Proctor Creek watershed and remediate environmental pollution in underserved neighbourhoods. In Washington DC it is used to finance local workforce development through a Green Collar Jobs Initiative.
Classic financial instruments can also be adapted to steer investment to underserved communities. For instance, California established equity criteria for funds raised through general obligation bonds to finance parks in underserved communities. The funds raised are then prioritised for projects that prevent resident displacement.
Adopting a social equity lens in urban forestry decision-making can help cities make green spaces an essential tool to tackle existing inequalities, while building local resilience and well-being. Done right, it can also reduce the risk of conflicts, strengthen community buy-in and leverage residents’ local knowledge and social networks.
In Ghana, in the absence of significant government action, citizens are taking matters into their own hands. In 2018, architect Namata Serumaga-Musisi led the Teshie Nungua Estate residents' association to help her design and build a small children's park. Many residents pitched in. The local imam provided water for construction and another resident provided tools for welding and storage space for materials. Dozens of Ghanaians contributed money via their mobile phones in response to a crowdfunding plea for the purchase of grass for the park and labour to plant it. The architect also put out a call online for volunteers from outside of the estate.
- Urban Parks Can Increase Social Equity | World Resources Institute (wri.org)
- UK air pollution removal: how much pollution does vegetation remove in your area? - Office for National Statistics (ons.gov.uk)
By Philip Kyeremanteng MSEE MCIWEM CSci