Green spaces help combat loneliness – but they need investment

Pollok Country Park, Glasgow. Image: Getty.

Urban green spaces – including parks, woodlands, riverbanks, and gardens – are an essential part of a web of physical and mental well-being. They provide spaces to socialise and opportunities to connect with the natural world. They are restorative enclaves in stressful cities.

The UK government’s first strategy on loneliness, recently launched, recognises the importance of green spaces in supporting this web of connections. But England’s urban natural environment is increasingly at risk, jeopardising the ambitions of the loneliness strategy from the outset.

A whole chapter in the loneliness strategy is devoted to community infrastructure – the places, spaces and activities that bring people together where they live. The strategy promises to unlock the potential of underused community space, including local parks. It recognises the wealth of research that shows how green spaces enhance health and well-being and provide community meeting places.

Our research at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Landscape Architecture reinforces and enriches these key messages about green space and well-being. We are examining the relationship between natural urban spaces and mental well-being, exploring spaces, stories and connections in Sheffield, Britain’s fifth-largest city.

Endcliffe Park, Sheffield: a restorative and social space. Image: Paul Brindley/IWUN/creative commons.

What we have found in Sheffield resonates internationally. A study in Adelaide, for example, highlighted the interrelationships of green space, walking and social interaction in supporting well-being. Another study in the Netherlands highlights the role of green spaces in reducing stress, encouraging physical exercise and enhancing social cohesion. Our concern has been not only to enrich this scholarly understanding, but to examine how it can be better translated into practice.

Getting outside

In our own research we have worked with local professionals and community members, from volunteers in parks to doctors and urban planners. We have identified five simple and inexpensive interventions that will help to maximise people’s connections with urban nature and create more favourable contexts for well-being. Three of those interventions have a direct bearing on isolation and loneliness.

One is the provision of toilets and cafes in parks and woodlands. As one community worker told us: “It’s not that the toilet improves people’s mental well-being, it’s that the toilet allows them to do the activity that will improve their well-being.” Without them, many older people, parents with young children, or people with disabilities or long-term illnesses may decide that the city’s parks are only for the fit and healthy. More than 1,700 UK public toilets have closed in recent years, although MPs have long argued that councils should have a duty to provide facilities in key locations such as parks.


A second intervention is the provision of staff in parks. These are people employed to look after and maintain the environment but also to run activities and support voluntary groups. One member of a local volunteers group told us how invaluable Sheffield City Council’s park rangers were in helping to organise and inform their work. Without them, the opportunity this group provided for meeting others and engaging in meaningful activity might be lost. According to the trade union Unison, 81 per cent of parks departments have lost skilled staff since 2010.

We are also recommending support for voluntary and community organisations to put on activities in parks and green spaces. These are the organisations that are rooted in local communities and can provide a vital bridge between spaces and people, creating safe and supportive environments for those who might be nervous about venturing outside.

Groups like Manor & Castle Development Trust, for example, offer health walks and confidence-building activities for people in one of Sheffield’s most deprived neighbourhoods. Such community infrastructure doesn’t simply sustain itself: it requires support, links with local planners and policymakers, and financial and material resources.

One voluntary sector worker explained the difference a trusted local organisation can make:

Having a friendly face – having people there that they know and that they recognise... that’s so important. And for so many people, that might be the only contact that they have all day.

Austerity impacts

These interventions are not expensive, but they do cost. They are also the easiest costs to strip out of hard-pressed local government budgets, with the effects felt disproportionately by disadvantaged people in deprived areas. When they are cut, green spaces become underused and can appear hostile rather than welcoming.

The government’s loneliness strategy highlights the £500,000 recently allocated by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government to “identify and share effective and deliverable models of service delivery” through the new Parks Action Group.

But the funds for managing the green spaces that people use to socialise, to meet friends or find restorative environments outside the home, continue to shrink. In just one city, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, funding for parks and allotments has been cut by 90 per cent. Over the next ten years, without further cuts, the council faces a shortfall of a further £17.5m.

These cuts are directly linked to austerity policies that have removed resources from local government while adding to local authority responsibilities. In 2019-20, English local authorities face a further loss of £1.3bn in government funds.

In this context, even simple, cheap interventions to increase well-being and reduce loneliness become harder to achieve. The words in the loneliness strategy may be warm, but the climate lonely and isolated people face in English cities continues to grow harsher.

The Conversation

Julian Dobson, Research Associate, Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature, University of Sheffield.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.