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March 18, 2019

Green Spaces Lead to Smarter, Happier Kids and Adults

When it comes to health, “green equity” is a prime indicator.

Researcher Lorien Nesbitt delves into green equity in “Who has access to urban vegetation? A spatial analysis of distributional green equity in 10 US cities,” in which she’s “talking about the trees, grass, gardens, parks and making our daily lives more green,” especially in the city. “When we have more access to green spaces, it makes our lives better,” she said.

Nesbitt is the lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher and teaching fellow in the department of forest resources management at the University of British Columbia.

The paper looked at Chicago, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Portland and Seattle to measure how much green equity there is and who has access to it.

According to the results, Nesbitt was surprised to see how consistently education and income were associated with better access to trees and vegetation.

Ideally, people should be able to access parks within a 10-minute walk from home and have vegetation on their street or in their backyard. But for most families with lower incomes, that’s not always available.

“It’s important for us to have access to green spaces for wellness. And those who are most vulnerable are those who are less privileged,” she said.

While city planning may not prioritize “green equity,” emerging research reveals the many benefits green spaces herald, especially for those with lower incomes. “The health impacts of green spaces are generally higher for less-privileged populations,” Nesbitt said.

Those health impacts include greenery acting as low-cost cooling, mitigating air pollution, and being a natural playground where children can climb and play hide-and-go-seek.

In fact, research has shown people in closer proximity to green spaces “have lower body mass indices,” she said.

“Exposure to green space early and in pregnancy can even lead to fewer allergies,” she added.

Lesser-known benefits include stress reduction.

A study published early this year details associations between green spaces and mental health and found that growing up near vegetation is associated with an up to 55 percent lower risk of mental health disorders in adulthood.

Another study of more than 2,500 children ages 7 to 10 showed an association between green spaces at school and increased memory and focus.

But while scientists are working to understand how green spaces, or lack of them, can affect overall health and more, they’re shrinking beneath the concrete jungle sprawl, and there’s little incentive to change that.

“It’s typically taken into account later in the building process. Green spaces are seen as amenities — not public goods, not fundamental, but a luxury,” Nesbitt said.

“I’m keen to see the move in some schools towards more nature-based playgrounds. I think we’ll see more of that now that we’re learning the benefits,” she said.

This story comes from a partnership between the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and the Herald-Tribune, funded by The Patterson Foundation, to cover school readiness, attendance, summer learning, healthy readers and parent engagement. Read more stories at

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