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Green Spaces Tied to Smaller Racial Gap in Coronavirus Infections

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 5/4/2021 Chelsea Cirruzzo
a view of a city: LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 4: An aerial view shows as early morning city view, looking west near Silver Lake, as social distancing decreases and driving increases despite the rising death toll from COVID-19 on May 4, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. With growing quarantine fatigue, movement outside of the home is on the increase in both states that are "opening up" and states that continue stay-at-home restrictions to fight the spread of coronavirus. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reports increasing passenger screenings, up to 154,695 on April 30 from a record low of 87,534 on April 14, and the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) unveiled its safety guidelines today in anticipation of a travel surge.   (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images) © (David McNew/Getty Images) LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 4: An aerial view shows as early morning city view, looking west near Silver Lake, as social distancing decreases and driving increases despite the rising death toll from COVID-19 on May 4, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. With growing quarantine fatigue, movement outside of the home is on the increase in both states that are "opening up" and states that continue stay-at-home restrictions to fight the spread of coronavirus. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reports increasing passenger screenings, up to 154,695 on April 30 from a record low of 87,534 on April 14, and the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) unveiled its safety guidelines today in anticipation of a travel surge. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

A higher ratio of green space in an urban county is significantly associated with a smaller Black-white racial disparity in coronavirus infection rates, according to a recent study.

Researchers with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of Hong Kong and the City University of Hong Kong examined county-level data on coronavirus infections in Black and white people in 135 of the most urban counties in the U.S. from late January to July 10, 2020. Published by the journal Environment International, the study encompassed 40.3% of the U.S. population, and researchers found that the county-level infection rate for Black people was almost twice that of whites, at 988 per 100,000 population versus 497 per 100,000.

"It's a striking and profound difference," says study co-author William Sullivan, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Researchers also used satellite imagery to look at the ratio of green space in each urbanized county, and examined links between different coronavirus infection rates between Black and white people and that green space. They found that four specific types of green space – open space in developed areas (a category encompassing parks, golf courses, large-lot homes and more); forest; shrub and scrub; and grassland and herbaceous landscapes – were "negatively" tied to the disparity in Black-white infection rates, meaning the greater the proportion of such spaces in a county, the smaller the racial gap in coronavirus case rates.

Overall, "in urban counties with more green spaces available, the racial disparity in (coronavirus) infection rates was lower than in counties that had less available green space," the study says.

In counties with the greatest proportion of green space, Sullivan says, "we saw a reduction of about 50%" in the Black-white racial disparity. The researchers also controlled for socioeconomic and demographic factors such as household size, household income and poverty rate, as well as for pre-existing chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity.

Sullivan says this study points to the impact green space can have on people's health. His fellow researchers included Bin Jiang, a landscape architecture professor at the University of Hong Kong, and Yi Lu, a professor in the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering at the City University of Hong Kong.

"People recover from stressful experiences in these kinds of spaces significantly faster than they would in an otherwise designed but vegetatively barren space, and we know this from measuring hormones and physiological measures of stress," Sullivan says. "There's significantly stronger social ties among neighbors. People recover from the stress and strain of mental fatigue [around green spaces]."

Within the study, the researchers proposed several reasons for an association between a drop in infection disparity and more green spaces, including that more green spaces are likely to draw people outdoors, where the risk of virus transmission is lessened. Notably, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently said fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks outdoors except when in certain crowded settings.

"To the extent that black individuals have disproportionately less access to green spaces than their white counterparts," the study says, "simply having access to green spaces that pull people outdoors is likely to reduce" the racial disparity in infection rates.

Counties with greater amounts of green spaces tend to have more equitable access to those spaces, researchers also noted. And green spaces can promote physical activity that may enhance residents' immune systems; such areas also may improve people's mental and social health.

"Visual or physical contact with urban green spaces can reduce mental fatigue, reduce mental stress, and enhance self-discipline and reduced impulsiveness at the individual level," the study says. "Such exposure to green spaces can also reduce negative moods and verbal and behavioral aggressiveness, which can lead to enhanced trust and collaboration.

"Taken together, these benefits of exposure to nature can promote immune system health and social cohesion which may provide protective benefits against the virus."

The researchers say the study should be an encouragement to see green spaces not as amenities, but as necessities.

"Our study suggests that green space is a critical innovation of urban design or planning," Lu says.

"For too often in the U.S., we thought about the provisions of parks and street trees as an amenity," Sullivan says. "And what the body of research that our group has been involved in shows … is that green infrastructure and green spaces, when in cities, are an essential part of a healthy human infrastructure."

Copyright 2021 U.S. News & World Report

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