As we edge closer to the end of the lockdown conditions, one thing this unprecedented set of rules has taught us is the value of green space. Here, Beth Collier, a Nature Allied Psychotherapist and Director of Wild in the City outlines why green spaces and time in natural settings have always been vital to our mental and physical health, and how having less access to them has a significant impact on black and minority ethnic (BME) people in the UK.
We have all seen that black and Asian people are dying at higher rates from Covid-19 than white people. Existing disparities in our underlying health, our living arrangements, our work and income have all been put forward as factors.
Environmental health and proximity to nature also play a key role in marking differences in experiences between ethnic groups during the Covid-19 pandemic. People of colour are more likely to live in urban areas with a ‘deficiency of access' to green spaces, defined by the London Plan in terms of how far households need to travel to access a space, but also its quality and size. Without this natural buffer to the stresses of urban life, black and minority ethnic (BME) people are disproportionately affected by environmental conditions which evoke stress and harm our health. In a time of global crisis and government measures limiting people’s time outside their homes, these disparities are both illuminated and exacerbated.
Nature's health properties
For those us with access, time in nature has been a godsend during lockdown helping to give us grounding in uncertain times. Daily exercise in the park as spring comes into full bloom and nature is lush and verdant has been calming and up-lifting. There is so much to enjoy; watching, listening, and tuning in to the wildlife around us. Nature has a been shown to have a powerful effect on our emotions and physiology. Research from the University of Stanford found that areas of the brain responsible for rumination are less active during a 90 minute walk in a park setting. Simply looking at pictures of nature, let alone being in nature, triggers areas of the brain associated with love and empathy, according to Korean research. Meanwhile, a research team from Heriot-Watt University found that a short walk in nature increases meditative feelings and reduces frustration.
Outside space is not only essential for supporting emotional wellbeing and for exercise, it is also important for exposing skin to sunlight for the Vitamin D which is vital for healthy immune systems. Black and Asian people can be more deficient as our melanin-rich skin doesn't absorb as much UV radiation.
Being in green spaces decreases the stress hormone cortisol and lowers heart rate and blood pressure. Japanese research into the benefit of spending time next to trees has shown that Phytoncydes, chemicals released by trees as part of their defence against viral and bacterial attack, also benefit the human immune system; soothing both our parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, and therefore improving our digestion, sleep, energy levels and general sense of well-being. Natural sounds such as bird song, water, wind in the trees have been found to reduce stress and help us recover from stress more quickly.
People who live close to green spaces live longer and have lower stress levels. The evidence is clear: nature relaxes us and improves our health.
In contrast to the health giving properties of green and natural settings, grey, concreted urban environments are more likely to stimulate stress. Research has shown that grey urban scenery activates the amagdyla, an area of the brain associated with fear and anger. Urban environments can be overstimulating, with too many things demanding our attention; lights, signs, noise, traffic, pollution, crowds and the fast pace of people and traffic. The city is ‘in our face’ and the brain can interpret this overload as a threat, stimulating our fight or flight responses. This puts us on alert, elevating stress and raising our adrenaline; in extremes, it can make us withdraw or become confrontational, ultimately leading to fatigue.
Other environmental city stressors that impact urban residents include noise pollution, which is worse in poorer urban areas and again, people of colour are disproportionately affected. The constant bombardment of dominating sounds has been linked to type 2 diabetes, heart attacks, strokes and early death and even affects blood bio-chemistry. The city also negatively impacts our eyesight. The lack of horizon can mean children's eyes don't grow correctly and can also damage muscles in adults eyes, causing myopia (short-sightedness). Black people are also more likely to live in areas with fewer trees, and therefore more likely to be impacted by urban heat island effect, in which concrete becomes a heat sink due to the lack of trees to help cool city spaces down and consequently increases air pollution.
As humans our habitat matters. Most people of colour in the UK live in urban areas, (percentages by ethnic group: 99.1% of Pakistani, 98.7% of Bangladeshi, 98.2% of Black African, 97.9% of Black Caribbean, 97.3% of Indian and 94.2% of Chinese people) and therefore are disproportionately impacted by unhealthy city environments.
Deficiency of access to parks and open spaces
Advice under lockdown that we should exercise locally and not travel unnecessarily raises the importance of green spaces in cities. More than 83% of the general UK population resides in urban areas, and nearly all of the UK’s BME population.
There are still many people living in the UK without easy reach of open spaces. Fields in Trust reports that there are 2.6 million Britons without access to a green space within a ten-minute walk. A higher percentage of BME people live in areas of greatest deficiency of access to open green spaces with wildlife value.
The London Borough of Croydon, for example, has a population that is 50.7% BME, including the largest black Caribbean population in London; at the time of writing, it also has the highest rates of people infected with Covid-19. There is a large divide between north and south of the borough in terms of racial demographics and the amount and quality of green space. More than 70% of the population of north west Croydon are from BME communities. The north west is a densely populated area with limited green space; the majority of households have a deficiency of access to green space; for example, the Bensham Manor ward has 92% deficiency, and Broad Green 83%. Male life expectancy in the north of the borough is 10.6 years lower than the south, where there is a larger white population.
Minority ethnic people are also most affected by recent park closures during the lockdown period as they are less likely to have a garden. One of Lambeth’s largest open spaces, Brockwell Park was closed for several days in early April. The park edges Brixton, home to London’s third largest Black Caribbean population, which has 10 of the 13 most deprived Lower Super Output Area's (LSOA) in the borough of Lambeth, within the 10% most deprived in England.
Reports also show the intersection of race and class in accessing nature, people in lower paid jobs and with lower incomes - including a disproportionate number of BME people - are least likely to access nature.
Black communities are also disproportionately affected by polluted air, being exposed to higher levels of environmental toxins (people of African descent accounted for 15.3% of Londoners exposed to illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide, even though we represent 13.3% of the London population). Areas with a higher proportion of BME people and areas which are economically deprived have higher rates of air pollution.
We already know that air pollution is deadly, 36,000 people in the UK are estimated to die each year due to environmental toxins in the air we breathe. It is one of the main causes of asthma and increases the risk of having an asthma attack. It also impairs children's lung development.
Long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide, emitted by road traffic, is also a contributor to several underlying health conditions, including diabetes and heart disease, which BME people have at higher rates. Exhaust fumes have also been linked to fibroids and endometriosis, conditions which affect black women at a higher rate than other ethnic groups.
Disenfranchised due to racism
A health disparity is also created by BME people’s lower presence in nature and open countryside. A 2017 report from Natural England shows black and Asian people are less likely to regularly visit natural settings. There is wide recognition within the environmental field that participation within nature-based activities is largely white. This low presence matters because BME people miss out on the pleasure, health benefits and conservation of natural spaces.
My ethnographic research has explored the myriad reasons for this, given the often deep connection to the natural world in countries of heritage. For some people, historical legacies of racism and colonialism are at the core of a cultural disconnect, which can associate being in nature as 'less than’ compared to the perception of a more progressive material urbanism. There are also personal apprehensions about stepping into open countryside for some BME people, such as not always feeling safe, being unsure of how they will be received, or not liking how they are made to feel in these places due to racism. A process of disenfranchisement has separated us from nature as a source of nourishment which alleviates stress.
This information is important to collect and consider, because there is a fundamental loss in being disconnected from nature, compounded by a trauma in experiencing the full force of the city.
We all need access to nature and open green space as an antidote to the everyday stressors of city living, and not least the anxiety-inducing impact of this Covid-19 crisis.