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Feature: Green space – helping BME communities fill the void

A stroll through a park or spot of gardening during the summer is enough to banish even the darkest of moods. Indeed, you don’t need a doctor to tell you about the therapeutic effects of green space.

But recent research indicates black and minority ethnic communities are disproportionately lacking in such environments – and the effects on residents’ health and well-being may be significant.

In 2010 the now defunct Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) published a report that produced some thought-provoking statistics. In “Community Green: Using local spaces to tackle inequality and improve health”, CABE revealed that in deprived inner-city areas there are five times fewer public parks and good-quality general green space than people in more affluent areas.

However, when CABE decided to focus on ethnicity the results were startling. The research concluded that in areas where more than 40 per cent of residents are BME there is 11 times less green space than in areas where residents are largely white.

“For me that was really shocking,” said Dr Edward Hobson, CABE’s Head of Sustainable and Inclusive Design. “If we had that kind of disparity between police or healthcare provision people would say it’s unacceptable. It would be a political issue.”

© Copyright Jack Hill

Dr Hobson vehemently believes it’s a serious inequity in society that needs addressing. Together with the conclusions of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) ”How Fair Is Britain” triennial review in 2010 it draws a troubling picture for BME communities in the UK.

The EHRC report found that children from ethnic minorities are up to twice as likely to be involved in road traffic accidents whilst playing. The body also found that Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups are more likely to report ‘poor’ health than average and to experience poor mental health.

Lara Oyedele, the chair of umbrella body BMENational, believes that, while the reports cannot be conclusively linked, the parallel throws up some awkward questions.

“These findings are a concern,” she says. ”Such inequality between available green space undoubtedly has a detrimental effect on residents. In this case the majority are from a BME background. If Britain truly does consider itself to be a beacon of racial diversity and equality, the balance needs to be redressed urgently.”

So what is being done on a community level to help rectify such an alarming discrepancy?

Housing associations have been rising to the challenge of providing the green areas many communities simply cannot access. Many are doing much work to improve the utilisation of redundant land and are using green spaces to introduce their tenants to the benefits of nature.

BME housing association Tuntum has been running “Tuntum in Bloom” for two years. Many of its residents, because of the areas where they operate in Nottingham, Leicester and Derby, live in the inner city with little or no access to green space.

“There’s not that much of a sense of community among some of our dispersed tenants so we try to use green space to bring them together,” says Jo Wilby, Tuntum’s head of housing.

“We hold social events where we plant hanging baskets and residents are able to meet their neighbours.”

Tuntum tenants taking part in a planting day

This year, with the help of the Woodland Trust, the housing association is planting trees in a big open plan estate and is holding a planting weekend in March to get residents involved in improving their own space.

Similarly, Manchester’s Arawak Walton is involved in a Tenant Participation Advisory Service (TPAS) award-nominated scheme, The Green Team. The initiative engages children between the ages of four and 12 who pick litter, make hanging baskets and plant bulbs on derelict pieces of ground.

“You feel happy and it makes the neighbourhood look better,” says tenant Sulyn Carranza, an avid Green Team participant. A mother-of-two, Sulyn is pleased to have the opportunity to do something with her family and to make friends with people from the area. “It’s good for the children because they don’t only stay at home. They play among the plants and colours and discover simple things like bees.”

However, Maynette Francis, an Arawak Walton housing officer whose infectious enthusiasm helps drive the initiative forward, believes the urgent need for affordable homes affects the decision-making process of many providers when addressing the lack of green space. She thinks there needs to be more careful consideration on how spare land should be allocated.

“There was a pub where I live that’s gone now,” Maynette explains. “The local authority could’ve changed the space into a nice play area for all the kids who are just hanging around outside the shops. But they put up more houses.”

Naturally, in a cut-ridden social housing sector where, according to the National Housing Federation, 4.5 million people are on waiting lists, every scrap of available land is fair game for new builds.

But the positive effects of green spaces should not be underestimated. According to Bridget O’Connell from mental health charity Mind, people exposed to a more natural environment experience reductions in obesity and blood pressure, live longer and have a reduced vulnerability to depression.

“Views of trees increased concentration levels and reduced aggression and violence,” she says. “Green spaces possess restorative effects with better recovery from illness, lessened stress and anger and increased self-esteem and well-being.”

Dr Hobson agrees. He’s calling on housing associations to turn acquired land identified for new build development years in advance to be temporarily converted into green space.

© Neighbourhoods Green

“It would offer residents a considerable improvement on their quality of life,” he says. “And if you think of a child’s development from the age of two, when they’re running around sticking their hands in the earth, until the age of seven, that’s a five-year window during which there could be no development happening on a local site.”

Often, says Nicola Durrant from Neighbourhoods Green, a partnership highlighting the importance of open space for residents of social housing, the opportunities that green spaces around social housing provide to promote healthy lifestyles are overlooked.

“But many housing associations are involved in exciting approaches to providing excellent open spaces that impact positively on the quality of life of their residents,” she said. “In terms of new build developments there is often a balance between using land available for new homes to generate income potential and creating places where people want to live. But it can be done”

Her advice to social landlords? “Start with your tenants; encourage local people to play an active role in deciding what their open spaces would be like and how they should be used.”

In east London’s Bethnal Green, the local BME community is doing just that. Together with a representative from Organiclea, a community project that distributes plants and supports others to grow their own food, residents from Shahjalal House are choosing flora to be sowed into a piece of unused land on the estate.

Sharon Miah, a North London Muslim Housing Association (NLMHA) tenant participating in the consultation, is already looking forward to the summer. “It’s good for the environment, good for the soul,” she says. “When you come out and see green, it just lifts your mood.”

Shahjalal House residents during a planting consultation

“It’s also important for children to understand nature,” she continues, as an inquisitive child examines a potted strawberry plant donated by Organiclea. “They learn about plants and wildlife and, as they grow, they will respect living things.”

Ikbal Hussain, an NLMHA housing officer who is supervising the event, believes it adds ownership. “They can look after the plants and flowers and feel a part of the estate. They are more likely to take care of something they have created.”

Dr Hobson thinks there’s a false perception in social housing that a space immediately on a person’s doorstep is not considered one to be used and enjoyed.

“That’s quite sad,” he says. “Those spaces should be spaces where actually you should feel most able to let your kids play and have an environment where you can have some joy at just being outdoors.”

“And together with the findings of our report, that’s a very sobering message for local authorities and housing associations that are responsible for those places. There’s a clear challenge to deliver something better for BME tenants.”

Robert Szmigielski

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