Low-Income Communities Living In 'Nature-Deprived' Areas Are Starved for the Health Benefits of Green Space

Spending time in nature has proven mental and physical health benefits, yet low-income folks are often lacking access to the green spaces required to score them.

Woman Sitting at the Park
Photo: Getty Images

The expression "touch some grass" is often jokingly thrown around to people who need to leave the confines of their living room, step outside, and chill out, but it does have merit. Being in nature has long been touted for its benefits for wellbeing — including improved mental health, focus, and sleep, to name a few —and access to green space is often a factor that surveys use to determine whether or not a geographic area is considered "healthy."

But for individuals who are deprived of the opportunity to readily experience nature, which is the case for 70 percent of low-income communities in America, according to a 2020 analysis by Conservation Science Partners (CSP), there can be detrimental impacts. Here, experts break down who's most likely to miss out on green spaces, the potential health impacts of this loss, and what you can do to help yourself, your community, and others be able to access natural environments.

The Privilege of Access to Green Space

First, a quick explanation of what green space constitutes, exactly. Green space is defined as any open area that's covered by grass, trees, and vegetation, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This could mean parks, community gardens, and even cemeteries. Accessing green space is typically no-sweat for individuals living in the suburbs (hello, tree-lined streets, big backyards, and nearby access to hiking trails), but some city residents can also get their nature fix relatively easily, thanks to efforts to create green space areas for public use. San Francisco, for instance, has been dubbed the "healthiest" city to live in the United States and scored the top ranking for green space, which was based on factors such as parkland acres and hiking trails per capita, recreation access, walkability, and more, according to a 2022 analysis from Wallethub. This status could be partly attributed to a city-implemented project that's helping to better connect residents to parks, open spaces, and waterfront, as well as efforts to build public parks, such as one that recently opened in the city's SoMa neighborhood.

But in low-income areas, parks and gardens may not be as easy to come by. In fact, 76 percent of low-income, non-white individuals live in "nature-deprived" areas, meaning their census area has a higher proportion of natural area lost to human activities than the state-level median, according to the CSP analysis. On the flip side, only 48 percent of people with moderate income and 52 percent of high earners are considered to live in a nature-deprived area, according to the CSP data. These stats vary from state to state, too: In Connecticut, for example, 95 percent of low-income individuals are considered nature-deprived, according to the analysis.

This inaccessibility for low-income communities has historical roots. Since at least the 1950s, the development of housing due to urban sprawl has contributed to the destruction of natural areas, as has the construction of roads, pipelines, and transmission lines and drilling, mining, and logging practices, according to the CSP report. That said, increased development is only one piece of the puzzle, says Jenny Greenberg, the director of Neighborhood Gardens Trust, a non-profit preserving green spaces in Philadelphia. "Large parts of [Philadelphia] experienced practices like redlining, which resulted in disinvestment, vacancy, and abandonment in the city," she explains. (ICYDK, redlining is when mortgage lenders don't provide services in certain neighborhoods because of the race or ethnicity of the people who live in those communities, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.) "[Today,] those same neighborhoods often have less street cover [from trees], fewer parks, less access to healthy food."

Case in point: Only an estimated 44 percent of Philadelphia residents have a park entrance within 500 meters' walking distance (about one-third of a mile), according to information published by the EPA in 2018. The issue isn't limited to bustling cities such as Philadelphia, either. Income aside, the median distance to parks within rural census tracts is 6.2 miles, according to a 2013 analysis.

Why Green Space Matters to Your Health

The idea that accessing green space has profound mental and physical health effects has been proven time and time again. A 2016 study found that folks who spent just 30 minutes in an outdoor green space had lower rates of depression and high blood pressure, while other research indicates that being in contact with the Earth, such as walking barefoot in the grass, can reduce feelings of pain and improve mood. Similarly, a 2019 study found that spending time in nature leads to a significant drop in levels of cortisol (a hormone that regulates your stress response), and access to green space in urban areas has been associated with lower mental distress, reduced anxiety, and greater wellbeing, according to an article published in the journal BJPsych International. Having prolonged exposure to green space during adolescence is even linked with having fewer psychiatric conditions in adulthood, according to a 2019 study out of Sweden. Simply put, spending time in green space may make you healthier and happier.

Folks who have little to no access to green space can not only miss out on those potential health benefits, but they can also experience increased health risks. Individuals who live in low-income areas surrounded by violence are more likely to grow up exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as hypervigilance, anxiety, and intrusive thoughts, according to a study in the Journal of Community Psychology. While utilizing green space may help alleviate those symptoms, research suggests, folks in low-income communities often lack access to these nature-filled locations that can provide a means of coping. What's more, not having enough green space may create urban heat islands, which cause heat to become trapped in pavement and buildings, making it more difficult to cool indoor spaces and increasing air pollution, according to the EPA.Consequently, these islands can contribute to heat-related deaths and illnesses, such as respiratory difficulties, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and non-fatal heat stroke, according to the EPA.

How You Can Help Increase Access to Green Space

In addition to promoting the mental and physical health benefits associated with green space, establishing community gardens and green spaces may help to reduce violence and create a more positive outlook on low-income, urban living, says Greenberg. One way to do just that? Have communities take matters into their own hands, she says. "Communities can grow affordable food for their families and create places where neighbors could spend time outside together and benefit from time in nature, essentially beautifying their communities," she adds. "Different things drive people to garden but, certainly, the benefits are universal."

What's more, any individual who's able to — whether they are surrounded by green space or not — can support initiatives that give marginalized groups safe access to the outdoors. For those looking to get involved or donate, here are a few programs in major cities that promote and provide access to green space.

  • The Native American Land Conservancy helps to protect sacred Native land
  • Hike+Heal, based in Philadelphia, takes people, the majority of whom are Black women, out of the urban parts of the city and on meditative hikes.
  • The Greening of Detroit is a non-profit that plants trees and provides job training for youth while also educating them about their environments.
  • New Mexico Land Conservancy is a non-profit that protects the land, wildlife, and water of New Mexico.
  • Neighborhood Gardens Trust is a non-profit organization that helps with Philadelphia's land preservation.
  • Black to the Land is a BIPOC organization that is helping its members foster meaningful encounters in the outdoors.
Was this page helpful?
Related Articles