Green Space: An Underestimated Tool to Create More Equal Cities

By Delfina Grinspan, John-Rob Pool, Ayushi Trivedi, James Anderson and Mathilde Bouyé

As coronavirus restrictions ease around the world, many consider a walk around their neighborhood for some fresh air to be a welcome break from confinement. However, socioeconomic status could greatly affect the landscapes people find on these strolls, particularly in how much green they are likely to see.

The gaps between the haves and the have-nots in cities across the world are visible from space, illuminated by tree canopy.

San Francisco’s Urban Forestry Plan, for example, notes that tree canopy varies widely depending on the relative wealth of different communities. The ritzy villas in the Seacliff neighborhood enjoy a leafy 30% canopy cover, while historically lower-income and immigrant communities in the Mission and Outer Sunset neighborhoods have a scant 7.5% and 5% tree canopy cover, respectively.

The correlation between urban tree cover and income is well-documented in cities around the world, including DetroitJohannesburg and Mexico City. This is often the by-product of historic inequality: infrastructure decisions made decades ago, including tree canopy, unfairly benefited rich neighborhoods. This continues to impact services delivered today and can be a driver of current and future inequality.

Urban forests provide a variety of benefits to people, meaning their presence or absence can contribute to unequal outcomes in health, wealth and overall well-being.

But what if strategic regreening could help cities fight inequality and build back better after COVID-19? Cities can proactively address inequality as they plan green spaces to make environments more equitable and improve residents’ lives.

Urban Forest Planning and Existing Inequalities

Social equity aims to achieve fair outcomes for all. This can only happen by recognizing that individuals and social groups face unique challenges and require different levels of support based on their specific needs. Expanding and protecting green spaces without efforts to achieve social equity can worsen spatial and social inequalities and reinforce marginalized communities’ lack of access to the benefits that urban parks provide.

Installing and maintaining green infrastructure – like parks, riverbanks, bioswales, forest patches and street trees – can come at high costs, which communities may not be able to afford. In addition, differences in communities’ political representation and the cities’ economic interests to attract wealthy residents and tourists may impact decision-making in public green spaces.

For instance, the restoration of New York City’s Prospect Park raised real estate values and attracted new, wealthy residents, invariably driving out poorer residents from the area, particularly Black residents.

Land use and siting decisions for urban parks and green infrastructure may also disproportionately displace poor residents or informal communities who lack land tenure, usage rights and representation. In Mumbai, for example, protecting mangrove forests has fueled the eviction of slum residents, while high-end development in mangrove areas continues.

Furthermore, urban green spaces may create barriers to equal access when they are not designed with an explicit goal to meet the needs of disadvantaged groups such as women, people with disabilities, the elderly, children and other marginalized groups. The type, density and maintenance of vegetation affect how safe park users feel, which varies by gender, age, race and socioeconomic status.

In Delhi, Sydney and Madrid, a mapping activity conducted by Plan International in 2018 revealed that women found urban parks make up 20% of all unsafe public spaces with respect to physical and sexual assault.

Historically underserved and low-income neighborhoods also face the risk of green gentrification. In this process, new environmental amenities fuel socioeconomic exclusion and cultural alienation by transforming the neighborhood without addressing the needs and preferences of current residents.

Without appropriate foresight and regulation, green space’s impact on property values can drive up housing prices and push out low-income residents. For instance, environmental revitalization in many Brooklyn neighborhoods and the High Line in Manhattan has displaced long-time low- and middle-income residents.

Though Manhattan’s High Line provides certain environmental benefits, it contributed to green gentrification and displaced low- and middle-income residents in the area. Photo by Jared Lisack/Unsplash

When urban green spaces are unequally distributed, so too are the benefits they provide.

Low-income residents are more likely to live in hotter neighborhoods and be exposed to higher levels of air pollution than those living in more affluent areas, often partly as a result of having fewer green amenities. They are also more likely to suffer the health impacts of heat waves and the effects of stormwater flooding than their counterparts in richer, greener neighborhoods.

Recent studies show a correlation between increased air pollution and higher fatality rates from COVID-19. Urban forests, when properly designed, can help improve air quality, demonstrating the need for equitable urban tree distribution to avoid reinforcing inequalities in health outcomes.

Building Greener, More Inclusive Cities

Urban green spaces can be a valuable tool to level the playing field for disadvantaged communities across a wide range of issues, including health and economic benefits, improved safety and disaster resilience. To achieve this, projects that aim to enhance urban green space must be fair and have buy-in from communities.

Green space can help make low-income neighborhoods less vulnerable to climate and health risks by lowering local temperatures, improving air quality and mitigating flooding. For instance, in Buenos Aires, environmental restoration and re-greening of Lake Soldati is part of a multifaceted strategy to reduce flood risk in low-income areas of the city.

Green space can also deliver additional benefits that may be particularly important in underserved neighborhoods, like providing areas for leisure and community life, creating safer, more livable streets and reducing building energy costs associated with cooling.

Cities can take three crucial steps to make sure that the health, economic and environmental benefits of urban green spaces become drivers of increased social equity.

1. Establish Strong Political Leadership

Municipalities should establish strong political leadership that prioritizes underserved communities in urban green infrastructure projects and protects long-term social benefits from short-term economic interests. This can include proactively targeting neighborhood residents when hiring for the construction and maintenance of green infrastructure.

The One Soul One Tree mangrove restoration campaign in Indonesia provided a new income source for residents in addition to enhancing city forests. Photo by Joel Vodell/Unsplash

For instance, Mayor Tri Rismaharini in Surabaya, Indonesia, launched the One Soul One Tree campaign with the twin focus of enhancing city forests and creating alternative means of income for residents in poverty along the city’s beaches. In addition to protecting 5,000 mangrove trees, the project encouraged residents to harvest syrup from mangroves to create batik (Indonesian dyed fabric) and other products, creating a new source of income for residents.

2. Engage Communities Meaningfully

Proactive and meaningful community engagement is essential to ensuring local buy-in and agency in restoration and conservation projects. For instance, the Equitable Development Plan for Washington, D.C.’s 11th St Bridge Park was created through iterative rounds of community engagement, including brainstorming sessions with key stakeholders, large public sessions and online consultation. This allowed the initial focus on affordable housing to broaden and include cultural and political equity, workforce development and small business enterprises.

Community engagement, however, should not mean depending on residents and private property owners to plant and maintain new trees. This approach tends to be most effective in more affluent neighborhoods where residents have the financial resources to buy and care for young trees. Partnering with local and trusted organizations can be a critical strategy to build trust and ensure that communication and participation techniques are appropriate and effective.

3. Develop Innovative Funding Models

Equitable urban green planning requires innovative funding to help city governments put green spaces in underserved neighborhoods, while protecting community ownership to prevent gentrification. One way to do this is with impact bonds, which allow municipalities to share risk with investors, reducing their liability and financing costs for future projects.

Atlanta is using impact bonds to protect the Proctor Creek watershed and remediate environmental pollution in underserved neighborhoods. Washington, D.C. used them to finance local workforce development through a Green Collar Jobs Initiative.

Classic financial instruments can also be adapted to steer investment to underserved neighborhoods. For instance, California established equity criteria for funds raised through general obligation bonds to finance parks in underserved neighborhoods. The funds raised are then prioritized for projects that prevent resident displacement.

A Greener, More Equitable Future for Cities

Adopting a social equity lens in urban forestry decision-making can help cities make green spaces an essential tool to tackle existing inequalities, while building local resilience and well-being. Done right, it can also reduce the risk of conflicts, strengthen community buy-in and leverage residents’ local knowledge and social networks.

Chapultepec Park, Mexico City. Urban forest management with a focus on social equity can help make green spaces accessible to and beneficial for everyone. Photo by WRI México

Two WRI publications provide further evidence on challenges and good practices: the newly published Cities4Forests Social Equity Learning Guide that presents case studies and resources on social equity considerations relevant to urban forests and green infrastructure programs, and a forthcoming publication on social equity in climate action that analyzes how priority mitigation and adaptation measures can benefit lower-income and disadvantaged groups.

In the short term, implementing better urban forest management practices will make for nicer strolls through neighborhoods when the dust of the coronavirus pandemic settles. Long term, these practices will help local communities to be greener, healthier and more equitable.

The Social Equity Learning Guide is a living document that will serve as a tool to help cities adapt to climate change through the Global Commission on Adaptation’s Cities Action Track. It will be highlighted at the upcoming Climate Adaptation Summit in January. For more information and to submit feedback that will improve this body of work, please contact Ayushi Trivedi (

This blog post also draws on research undertaken for a forthcoming publication on social equity in climate action. For more information about this publication, please contact Mathilde Bouyé (

This blog was originally published on WRI’s Insights.

 Delfina Grinspan is a Research Assistant with the Governance Center and the Climate Program at World Resources Institute.

John-Rob Pool is the Implementation Manager for Cities4Forests within the Natural Infrastructure Initiative at World Resources Institute.

Ayushi Trivedi is Gender and Social Equity Research Analyst II at World Resources Institute.

James Anderson is an Associate II for the Natural Infrastructure Initiative at World Resources Institute.

Mathilde Bouyé heads the Climate-SDG team within the WRI Global Climate Program.

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