Image by Carmel Mahri

Urban equality: equity of access to green space in Melbourne

Throughout history, cities have struggled to provide equality for all citizens. Issues of equality extend to the ways that urban form can affect residents’ experiences and wellbeing [1]. At the time of writing, this issue is crucial, with Victoria, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory all emerging from extended lockdowns due to Covid-19. For residents of metropolitan Melbourne lockdowns have become a familiar tool in the race to contain the pandemic with residents having experienced more than 200 days of some of the strictest lockdown conditions globally.

The issue of inequity in access to green space is particularly important in cities like Melbourne, where heatwaves are likely to reach 50°C by 2040. In this case, green space could mitigate the impacts of the urban heat island effect and the cooling effect of green spaces could play an essential role in maintaining city resiliency to any future pandemic.

While many of the processes that contribute to shaping trends in inequality are typically not determined at the city level (but rather a state/national/international level), the manifestations of inequality are local and often spatially concentrated. Rising socio-spatial inequality manifests itself in the ability of some residents to out-compete others for the locations that provide access to key economic, physical, and social infrastructure such as access to green space. Inequality also manifests in urban concentrations of poor health (measured per head of population) and a range of social problems (e.g. higher levels of mental illnesses, drug consumption, obesity, violence and anti-social behaviours).

One way for cities to mitigate the manifestations of social inequality is by providing access to green space. Green space has several positive effects for society as well as additional known benefits for biodiversity and sustainability. Social benefits include increased place or community attachment, reduced crime, improved disaster resilience, access to locally produced foods, socialisation of children and school performance, as well as community therapeutic impacts.

Despite mounting international evidence of the important role green space plays in promoting positive social, health and sustainability outcomes, relatively little is known about how access to different types of green space varies for low-income households and what role population mobility may play in urban inequality over time [2].

An example of natural green space

An example of highly-modified green space

Our recently published paper [2] shows a negative spatial association between the proportion of people on low-incomes in an area and access to green space for metropolitan Melbourne, Australia. Typically, suburbs with high proportions of low-income households have poorer access to both natural green space (including natural and semi-natural areas, protected areas, recreation corridors, and service and utility areas) and highly-modified green space (areas such as developed parks and squares) than suburbs with low concentrations of low-income households. There is a vast difference between who benefits from access to greenspace within 5 or 10 kilometres of their home.

Our research also identified that population mobility accentuates inequality of access to green space over time. Over the period of 2011 to 2016, approximately three times as many low-income individuals moved from areas with ready access to green space to regions with poor access than moved in the opposite direction. We suggest that explanations for this relate to geographies of accessible, affordable housing and the location of new housing supply.

In analysing the spatial association between natural and highly-modified green spaces, we found that highly-modified green spaces are typically developed in areas that already have higher levels of access to natural green areas. To enable greater distribution and equity of access to all types of green space, planning and urban development must consider developing green space in new ways, rather than relying on the existing natural environment to foster modifications.

Green Space Distribution in Metropolitan Melbourne by Type. Image sourced from "Accessing green space in Melbourne: Measuring inequity and household mobility"

The provision of green space is an important component of enhancing liveability in Melbourne and cities worldwide. Beyond the static and short-term effect examined here in the context of cities having lived under strict lockdown conditions in which local amenity becomes even more critical, larger issues are at stake for urban equality. Our research suggests that a continuation of these trends will likely also have significant inter-generational well-being and health outcomes for low-income households and communities, as lower-income households increasingly live with reduced local green space amenities.

The results of this study highlight the inequality in access to green space in Melbourne, with access to green space skewed towards more affluent neighbourhoods.

From a public policy and planning perspective, the association between access to green space and social justice/health outcomes is critical to addressing urban inequality [3]. Urban planning, as a system for redistributive justice and improving wellbeing in cities, therefore needs to pay particular attention to the needs of low-income households [4].

The results of this study highlight the inequality in access to green space in Melbourne, with access to green space skewed towards more affluent neighbourhoods, and suggest that the magnitude of this trend could be even more significant in the future. A key message for planners and policymakers is that affirmative action is required in the planning and provision of highly-modified green space to target low-income communities, in addition to the need for affordable housing development in locations proximate to both natural and highly-modified green spaces.

In cities where housing markets play a determining role in where people live, city planners need to be more focused on the equitable distribution of green space across metropolitan areas to ensure access to green infrastructure for a diversity of residents, regardless of their socio-economic circumstances. It is important that ongoing research and government planning continue to monitor access to green space as part of a broader question into measuring and acting on urban inequity.

Farahnaz Sharifi

Farahnaz is a PhD scholar in the Centre for Urban Transitions at Swinburne University of Technology. Farah’s experience as an urban planner is the foundation of her research in urban analytics. In her research, she develops new models of urban accessibility, analyses socio-economic inequalities, and provides recommendations for driving just urban governance.

Wendy Stone

Wendy is a Professor and Academic Leader of Housing Futures Research within the Centre for Urban Transitions at Swinburne University of Technology. She is undertaking research funded by the Australian Research Council, the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute and the Victorian Government. Her research focuses on housing equity and innovation.

Christian (Andi) Nygaard

Christian (Andi) Nygaard is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Urban Transitions at Swinburne University. He is a social economist and Research Theme Leader for New Ways of Urban Living. Andi is currently leading research projects funded by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute and the Community Housing Industry Association in Australia.

Iris Levin

Iris is an architect, urban planner and researcher. She has a passion for working with diverse communities and understanding the effects of migration on the built environment. She is interested in housing, social planning, migration and social diversity in cities. Iris is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Urban Transitions where she is leading the Migration and Urban Diversity (MAUD) stream.