(originally posted on Urban Green Adaptation Diary)
One of the consequences of recent world events is an explosion of social media posts, thinkpieces, and even preliminary research into how urban planning – and urban greening – can shape the post-COVID city. Whilst these are welcome and fruitful discussions, they must not deflect from some of the bigger and tougher questions in among all the hype.
I don’t want this to come across as a ‘boo boy’ article against urban greening. COVID and climate change are very real phenomena with the potential to harm people. If green spaces in all their various shapes, sizes and forms can reduce some of these risks through heat mitigation, flood risk reduction, health benefits, food provision and all the rest, then I am all for it.
The problem, however, is that decisions over how green spaces are developed and distributed are not value-neutral. Nor are they separate from the bigger context of whose identities are recognised and prioritised within policy and governance. Many of the social, economic and political processes that put some urban dwellers at greater harm from COVID than others are the same processes that lead to unequal distribution of climate risk and indeed urban greening. Research published in the USA earlier this year shows that practices of redlining (defined on Wikipedia as “the systematic denial of various services by federal government agencies, local governments as well as the private sector either directly or through the selective raising of prices”, but commonly associated with racial discrimination) 60-70 years ago still have effects today on distribution of street trees and localised heat distribution. It is therefore not a big jump to realise that implicit biases in our planning and governance systems today may well lock disadvantaged neighbourhoods – and the people living there – into exposure to more dangerous levels of climate change and lower access to risk-reducing interventions.
Indeed, health and wellbeing is another area where greenspace ends up doing a lot of heavy lifting. There is plenty of scientific evidence that greenspaces support mental health, and indeed a groundswell of research into how people have engaged with greenspace under conditions of COVID. But you know what also causes stress and poor health outcomes? Unemployment, austerity, inequality, and – critically – structural racism. Community-led urban greening initiatives are similarly a fantastic means of developing and maintaining what social scientists like to call social capital – basically, the ties, connections and sense of belonging that help people to keep going in the face of shocks and stresses. What can’t be allowed to happen, though, is for the responsibility of being resilient to fall on individuals and communities, or to allow ‘building resilience’ to become a means of rolling back public services by stealth. Greenspace is a welcome addition to, but not a substitute for, state support for public health, public housing, infrastructure, and social welfare.
Lastly, we should also pay heed to whose identities are recognised and whose are silenced or marginalised when we talk about urban greenspace. Black Lives Matter has drawn attention to the #BlackInNature and #BlackBirdersWeek hashtags, and has sparked debate over the often white and middle-class character of conservation. It is also worth reflecting on the often exclusive and privileged spaces through which international knowledges and policies about urban greening travel, and whether knowledge and belief systems developed in one part of the world can readily be applied to urban green environments elsewhere. How do more technical approaches to urban green landscapes grounded in concepts such as ecosystem services and landscape ecology sit with traditional, local and indigenous knowledges? Which knowledge systems carry more power, and to what effect?
To be clear, I’m not saying don’t plant trees, don’t have community gardens, or don’t go to the park if it makes you feel better. But urban greening does not in itself make a just, resilient city. To address the factors that led to uneven exposure to COVID, and will continue to lead to uneven exposure to climate risk, urban greening needs to be just one part of a much bigger suite of structural reforms such as rent controls and redistributive taxation. In this regard, greenspace researchers would do well to form alliances not only with ecology, public health and engineering, but also with their academic colleagues in areas such as education, social welfare and public policy.