By Ashley Edwards
To exercise and connect with nature in a safe place is a luxury for some communities. Urban communities in cities like Detroit with vast vacant tracts of land, much of it unsafe and undeveloped, are especially deprived of this opportunity. On February 17, 2016, Detroit Future City published a report called Achieving an Integrated Open Space Network in Detroit.This report illustrates the importance of transforming Detroit vacant land into open spaces to improve the quality of life for Detroiters.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)defines open space/green spaces as “any open piece of land that is undeveloped (has no buildings or other built structures) and is accessible to the public. Open space can include: Green space (land that is partly or completely covered with grass, trees, shrubs, or other vegetation). Green space includes parks, community gardens, and cemeteries, schoolyards, playgrounds, public seating areas, public plazas, vacant lots.”
Access to an integrated open space network offers numerous benefits from a population health perspective, including mental restoration, active recreation and active transportation.One study found that people living in areas with few outdoor recreation facilities were more likely to be overweight (Catlin, 2003). Moreover, the Detroit Future City report noted that the “age, income and minority status place some residents at a disproportionately greater risk of adverse health impacts caused by environmental hazards.
According to the Detroit Alliance for Asthma Awareness, “14.8 percent of the children in Detroit suffer from asthma, 69.1 percent of Detroiters are obese or overweight and on average deaths resulting from heart disease in Detroit are 50 percent higher than the national average (Detroit Future City Implementation Office, 2016).” Detroit is a clear example of the health outcomes that can result from the lack of access to open spaces. The health of populations ranging from children to adults are negatively impacted from the lack of access to open spaces.
Additionally, open space and health is a concern for many urban communities around the United States. Ironically, while some areas of Detroit need green space integrated in redevelopment strategies, many areas have a lot of vacant space – brown and green – that offer opportunities for creative reuse.
Los Angeles shares the challenge of redeveloping vacant land.In 2014, LA OpenAcres,a project of the Los Angeles Community Health Council, launched a database of open and accessible lands in the city. “The council proposed a vision of neighbors working together throughout Los Angeles to create hundreds of community forest networks, mini-parks, urban farms, green markets, plazas, playgrounds, and other public spaces by 2050. LA Open Acres is now serving as a catalyst and a way-finding tool to unlock the potential of acres of underutilized land.”
Developing open spaces is an equitable solution to address adverse health issues caused by environmental hazards and the lack of walkability. “By incorporating trees and vegetation into vacant land transformation activities, pollution can be reduced by absorbing airborne pollutants as well as helping filter pollutants from soil and water (Detroit Future City Implementation Office, 2016).”Environmental and policy interventions that promote healthier lifestyles by encouraging physical activity through integrated open space networks are especially important to urban communities. Moving forward we need to create open spaces in community development; but with extensive vacant land in Detroit, we also need to apply thoughtful development strategies to promote population health.
Ashley Edwards is the 2016-17 W.K. Kellogg Population Health Fellow.