Ensuring access to natural spaces and private gardens close to home may help limit disparities to nature exposure

Olsen, J. R., Caryl, F. M., McCrorie, P. ., & Mitchell, R. . (2022). Socioeconomic inequality in Scottish children’s exposure to and use of natural space and private gardens, measured by GPS. Landscape and Urban Planning, 223. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2022.104425

Known benefits of access to green space for young children include lower risk of mental health disorders and improved cognitive, social, emotional, and behavioral health. Limitations in the related research, however, raise the issue of generalizability – that is, the degree to which you can apply the results to a broader context. Many studies do not differentiate among the type of green space, fail to adequately account for socioeconomic differences, and consider the presence – but not actual use – of green spaces. This study addressed these concerns by linking children's use of green spaces with type and availability of these spaces as well as socioeconomic status (SES).

Data for this study was based on 677 children who were part of a larger research project, SPACES (Studying Physical Activity in Children's Environments across Scotland), which linked Scottish children's detailed mobility information to their geocoded home address locations. For the current study, all data for SPACES children residing within the Scottish mainland were included. An equal proportion of the children resided within either the most or least deprived areas of Scotland. The GPS locations for each child were spatially joined to natural space (NS), private gardens (PG), and natural space and private gardens (NS/PG). Accelerometers worn by the children over eight consecutive days during their waking hours (excluding school time) provided information about where they spent their outdoor time.

Results showed that on average, children spent 15% of their out-of-school time in NS, and 41% of their time in NS when including PG. Both distance from home and SES influenced the amount of time children spent in NS. Although children of both lower and higher SES spent more of their time in NS and PG closer to home, children of higher SES spent more time in natural areas farther away from home than did lower SES children. When NS and PG were combined, higher SES children spent 10.7% of their time in areas more than 800 m from home, as opposed to lower SES children who spent only 4.4% of their time at least 800 m from home. When children had more NS close to home, use increased for lower income children, but not for higher income children.

This study adds to the literature by providing information about “real” (actual) use of natural spaces within neighborhoods versus use implied by availability only or as subjectively reported. The results indicate that private gardens provide an important location in which children spend their outdoor time. The fact that lower SES children spent more of their NS time within 100 m of home highlights the need for quality NS and PG spaces in all neighborhoods. Planners should utilize this information when examining and planning neighborhoods to ensure access to natural spaces and private gardens close to home, especially in the most deprived areas. Doing so could be one way to narrow inequalities experienced by many children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

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