One persistent aspect of urban environmental injustice is inequitable distribution of vegetation, with lower income areas having less vegetation cover and fewer green spaces than more advantaged areas. As access to vegetation is linked to physical and mental health, limited vegetation in a community may contribute to the health disparities experienced by many people in low-income neighborhoods. This study was based on the understanding that schools could possibly play a role in mitigating some of the health disparities by making vegetation cover more equitable throughout the city.
The study was conducted in Santiago, Chile – a fairly segregated city based on income. Researchers looked at all primary, middle, and high schools within the city borders, including 500 public schools, 855 subsidized schools, and 224 private schools. They utilized satellite imagery to draw borders around each school and then classified school grounds as vegetated (irrigated grass, winter deciduous trees, or evergreen trees) or non-vegetated (barren or built-up). They calculated the proportion of each classification within the school borders, and then did the same for 100-meter buffers and 1000-meter buffers around the schools. They then tested to see if there were differences in vegetation classification proportions between school types and between schools and their surrounding areas.
Results showed that schools do not mitigate the vegetation inequalities in Santiago, but rather mimic the uneven distribution seen throughout the city. The classification of the buffers around schools indicated that school grounds are very similar to the neighborhoods that surround them, meaning that children who live in high-income areas that already have a lot of green space also go to greener schools in those areas. The proportion of vegetation within school grounds also depended on the type of school, with private schools attaining higher levels of vegetation cover than public or subsidized schools. Interestingly, public schools had significantly more vegetation than subsidized schools, perhaps reflecting differences in policies governing management of public school land.
The results of this study are unfortunate and worrying. Rather than lessening the vegetation inequalities found in an urban setting, schools may be exacerbating the situation. Lower income families and children are the most affected, as they are most likely to be attending public or subsidized schools instead of private ones. This research highlights the important role that schools could play in providing green spaces for lower income communities and more evenly distributing vegetation throughout the city. The results have important policy implications, as well, such as recognizing that a school's contribution to a community can extend beyond education.