Racial and Socioeconomic Disparities in Access to Urban Greenspace

Posted by on Jun 18, 2019
Racial and Socioeconomic Disparities in Access to Urban Greenspace

by Zoe Parker

**This piece is a shorter version of Zoe Parker’s essay, which won the 2019 Greene Prize for Environmental Writing by an undergraduate.**


Urbanization is increasing the proportion of people living in cities (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). Driven by population pressure, urban development is often accompanied by environmental and human health burdens such as pollution, urban heat islands, and more frequent flooding (Byrne and Wolch, 2009; Wolch et al., 2014). Evidence demonstrates that the maintenance of urban green space can alleviate many of these burdens by providing an array of beneficial ecosystem services (Gobster, 2002; Byrne and Wolch, 2009; Dai, 2011; Wolch et al., 2014). However, historical race and class-based segregation have contributed to the unequal provision of green space within U.S. cities (Wolch et al., 2014). As a result, communities of color and low-income communities often face geographic, financial, and socio-cultural barriers that contribute to reduced green space accessibility in urban areas (Dai, 2011).

The importance of green space proximity in cities

The term “urban green space” encompasses a broad variety of areas varying in features, ecology, and function. Areas classified as green space can be further categorized as public or private space (Dai, 2011). Public green spaces are typically administered by municipal governments or nonprofit organizations and are available to all of a neighborhood’s residents for a low fee or free of charge (Byrne and Wolch, 2009). Public spaces include parks, nature preserves, forests, and community gardens (Wolch et al., 2014). On the contrary, private green spaces, like backyards and golf courses (Dai, 2011),are available only to those who own the property or who can afford the high cost of access (Byrne and Wolch, 2009).

In urban areas, the combination of public and private green space provides ecosystem services that help maintain cities’ ecological integrity. Adverse environmental impacts generated by concentrated industrial activity and an extensive built environment – air pollution, urban heat islands, and poor stormwater drainage, for instance – can be mitigated by green space (Byrne and Wolch, 2009). Trees assist in the filtration of air pollutants and provide cool, shaded areas, while grassy groundcover efficiently absorbs excess rainwater (Wolch et al., 2014). Additionally, urban green space can support biodiversity by providing a habitat for plant and animal species that would otherwise be displaced by urban development (Newell et al., 2013).

Furthermore, access to green space can enhance the quality of life of people living in cities. Natural areas offer urban residents a reprieve from city life by providing a space for recreation and relaxation (Wolch et al., 2014). A longstanding body of literature has linked exposure to nature to enhanced mood and reduced feelings of stress and fatigue (Ulrich, 1981; Wolch et al., 2014). Similarly, research has established a connection between close proximity to a public park and increased levels of physical activity (Dai, 2011). Amenities desired by families, such as playgrounds and swimming pools, are often located in public parks and nature areas (Hamstead et al., 2018). In addition, public green space often provides land for community gardens that contribute to the provision of quality food in the inner-city (Byrne and Wolch, 2009).   

Causes of disparate green space accessibility

In the United States, urban green space accessibility reflects persistent racial and socioeconomic hierarchies (Wolch et al., 2014). The enduring influence of historical segregation and inequality is demonstrated by disparities in land development, financial status, and park design and administration (Byrne and Wolch, 2009). Consequently, low-income earners and racial minorities often face barriers to urban green space access.

Urban green space is less abundant within neighborhoods with high concentrations of low-income or minority residents (Hamstead et al., 2018). Low-income and minority residents typically occupy the inner-city core or inner suburban ring, where dense urban development leaves little room for large expanses of green space (Wolch et al, 2014). Evidence for a scarcity of neighborhood green space is supported by previous studies of park non-use that indicate that racial minority users travel further from home than White users to visit a given park (Byrne and Wolch, 2009; Dai, 2011).

Transportation-related barriers intensify the difficulty of accessing green space for low-income users. Longer travel distances can hinder active forms of transportation, such as walking or biking, in favor of driving or taking public transit (Dai, 2011). A reliance on vehicle transportation restricts users to green spaces in close proximity to bus and rail stops or with adequate motor vehicle parking (Hamstead et al., 2018).

Reduced green space availability in low-income neighborhoods can be partially attributed to approaches to funding public spaces. The construction and maintenance of municipal parks, for example, is typically funded largely or entirely by taxes collected from residents (Byrne and Wolch, 2009). Low-income, predominantly minority communities tend to have less public funding to spend on green space provision (Wolch et al., 2014). These communities also have less nonprofit support for green space provision than Whiter, more affluent neighborhoods (Wolch et al., 2014).

Limited discretionary income compels low-income earners to be reliant on public, rather than private, green space. Urban residents of low socioeconomic status are unlikely to be able to afford the high costs of accessing the city’s private green space (Byrne and Wolch, 2009) through home ownership or a golf course membership, for instance (Dai, 2011). Even at some public green spaces entry fees may prove prohibitive to low-income earners (Byrne and Wolch, 2009). Furthermore, the cost of traveling to green space places an additional burden upon low-income earners that are reliant on public transit due to not owning a car (Dai, 2011).

Inequities in advertising and programming may limit the ability of certain minority groups to utilize public urban green space (Hamstead et al., 2018). Non-English speakers may encounter linguistic barriers when seeking information about or navigating a public green space (Dai, 2011). Rules that prohibit culturally-preferred activities, such as playing sports or playing music out loud, may cause some users to feel unwelcome (Gobster, 2002; Hamstead et al., 2018).

Reported feelings of discrimination also contribute to non-use of green space (Gobster, 2002; Hamstead et al., 2018). In a survey of racial minorities using a city park, Black, Latino, and Asian users reported feeling discriminated against by other users, police, and park staff at higher rates than White users (Gobster, 2002). Reported discrimination included overt actions like verbal harassment and physical assault, as well as more ambiguous experiences of unequal treatment (Gobster, 2002). Whether real or perceived, discrimination may influence a user’s opinion about the safety and accessibility of a particular green space (Gobster, 2002; Byrne and Wolch, 2009).

Potentially adverse impacts of expanding green space availability

Increasing the availability of urban green space may have negative effects on low-income and minority residents. The conversion of low-income, industrial areas into parks and nature preserves contributes to job loss among working-class residents (Wolch et al., 2014) and may displace low-income and homeless populations (Dooling, 2009). The addition of higher quality and more abundant green space enhances neighborhood desirability, driving up housing costs (Dai, 2011). Rising costs of living often force low-income and minority residents into cheaper areas of low environmental quality (Wolch et al., 2014). The resulting displacement of existing residents in service of expanding urban green space to serve those residents has been termed ecological gentrification (Dooling, 2009).

The expansion of urban green space may unintentionally impose negative health impacts upon low-income and minority residents. Efforts to limit travel distances and encourage walking and biking may increase residents’ exposure to harmful air pollution and pose a safety risk if green space is constructed in high-traffic areas (Wolch et al., 2014).

Policy solutions

Innovative policy interventions can enhance urban green space accessibility while taking into account social impacts. Underutilized urban spaces like abandoned transportation corridors, empty alleyways, and remediated industrial sites offer sites for green space without imposing upon existing communities (Newell et al., 2013). The adaption of small, underutilized sites facilitates the distribution of green space throughout a city, rather than creating a central point of attraction for property development (Wolch et al., 2014). Repurposing empty sites for green infrastructure can improve the attractiveness of communities (Wolch et al., 2014), reduce residents’ travel times to access green space, and disperse the ecosystem services of green space more widely (Newell et al., 2013).

Thoughtful policies relating to land use and economic development can help curb the potential for ecological gentrification. For instance, the maintenance of land for industrial uses or allocated for locally-owned business preserves jobs for existing residents (Wolch et al., 2014). Rent controls, homeownership incentives, and affordable housing measures help maintain the cost of living and curb the displacement of low-income residents (Wolch et al., 2014). 

Challenges associated with policy implementation

City planners and policymakers alike must take into account the unique features of a community when designing and implementing green space solutions. Generalized state or federal-level standards for green space provision do not consider the heterogeneity of community composition or local environmental needs (Byrne and Wolch, 2009). Consequently, one-size-fits-all solutions may have negative impacts on residents or environmental quality (Wolch et al., 2014).

The provision of additional green space requires long-term funding sources for continuous maintenance. According to Jaime González, Urban Conservation Programs Manager at The Nature Conservancy, local governments and nonprofit organizations will often provide “money to plant trees”, for instance, “but not to water them or maintain canopy health in the long-term” (González, 2019). Ensuring the availability of green space in low-income and minority communities may require the exploration of non-traditional funding sources.


Urban green space provides important ecosystem services and enhances the quality of life city residents. Despite the provision of urban green space as a public service, geographic, economic, and socio-cultural barriers may limit access for low-income and minority urban residents (Byrne and Wolch, 2009; Wolch et al., 2014). Efforts to expand green space access for underserved residents may contribute unintentionally to ecological gentrification (Dooling, 2009). However, thoughtful policy solutions, such as the repurposing of underutilized areas for green infrastructure, can curb gentrification (Newell et al., 2013) and limit the creation of “park deserts” by dispersing green space throughout a city (González, 2019). To ensuring maximum and lasting benefits for communities, planner and lawmakers must advocate for locality-specific policy interventions (Byrne and Wolch, 2009; Wolch et al., 2014) and long-term financial investments (González, 2019).


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