When creating more equitable urban green spaces in Michigan, the shape of green space matters

Source: U-M School for Environment and Sustainability

Students assessing an urban agricultural site in Detroit’s Lower Eastside. Credit: Dave Brenner, University of Michigan

Most Southeast Michigan residents do not have equal access to urban green spaces, according to a new University of Michigan study.

Researchers at U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability analyzed data from seven counties in Southeast Michigan and looked at how far residents must travel to reach a park, community garden or some other form of urban green space.

For the study, an accessible urban green space was defined as one that is 300 meters or less from a resident’s home. The researchers found that access to urban green space is extremely unequal in 70% of the urban areas in the region. 

“Because of the large, continuous green strips along rivers and remaining forest patches, the distribution of urban green space in areas with lower population density is relatively more equal than that in dense areas such as downtown Detroit,” said Jianxing Guan, a doctoral student at the school and lead author of the study.

Counterintuitively, the researchers found that the total area of urban green space was not an important indicator of equality. Instead, the shape of urban green space, the size of the largest green space in a census tract and the density of green space played more important roles in urban green space equality.

Based on their study, published online Feb. 6 in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, the researchers offered specific and practical suggestions for urban green space planning strategies in Southeast Michigan.

For example, implementing several tiny green spaces within walking distance of residents instead of adding only one large park could provide more accessible urban green space, thereby promoting equality.

They also suggest designing green spaces with more complex shapes, since a longer perimeter can serve more surrounding communities. For two green spaces of the same surface area, a long, thin and irregular green strip is better than a square- or round-shaped park in terms of equality.

Vacant land in Michigan, which provides precious land resources in dense urban areas, could also be properly turned into urban green space, said Runzi Wang, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at SEAS and a study co-author.

“Redeveloping and greening these vacant lands not only can provide multiple benefits to city dwellers and revitalize the area but also improve equity by increasing the density of urban green space,” Wang said. “We hope that governments and jurisdictions could utilize the vacant lands to serve sufficient and equitable green spaces for residents and turn a double disadvantage into a win-win solution.”

The other authors of the study are Derek Van Berkel of the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability and Zhongyao Liang of Xiamen University in China.

Study: How spatial patterns affect urban green space equity at different equity Levels: A Bayesian quantile regression approach

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