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Addressing health inequalities in greenspaces to age well: Part I socio-economic and transport access inequalities

Updated Thursday, 4 April 2024

Natural spaces are beneficial to health and wellbeing and can help people to age well but there are a number of barriers to these in our society. This article explores these inequalities and what's being done to address them.

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We start ageing on the day we are born and we are all too aware of this. Many people now recognise the importance of caring for our physical and mental health and wellbeing, which is an important consideration throughout our lifespans and not just when we reach retirement. Research suggests that the sooner we start caring for our physical and mental health and wellbeing, the more likely is it for us to age well and stay well. The Five Pillars for Ageing Well (nutrition, hydration, physical, social and cognitive stimulation) is a framework, which we have been exploring in our Ageing Well Public Talks series, which has now been running for five years. As part of The Open University and The Parks Trust Milton Keynes’ collaboration, we have been focussing on how greenspaces are crucial resources to help us into ageing well. It is well noted that greenspaces enhance the health of those who engage with them. 

Benefits of Greenspaces

Today, the benefits of interacting with nature for our health are well-known, from the physical; exercising our bodies outdoors, to the mental; taking time to relax and reflect in nature, to the social; engaging with others outdoors. These benefits are compounded by learning about them, thereby positively affecting wellbeing (Pocock et al. 2023), and the UK Government has now embedded awareness and care for nature into our school curriculum. 

Due to modern lifestyles, we have a lack of exercise in our daily routine and are therefore becoming increasingly sedentary. This leads to various health issues that are becoming more frequent, including obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, some types of cancer and social isolation and mental health conditions. Thankfully, nature is now being considered as a remedy; a ready supply of physical, mental and social wellbeing, as recommended by the NHS. Urban designers and planners are now required to carefully consider the integration of greenspace into city schemes to facilitate greater access by everyone. 

Unfortunately, despite all these known benefits, there are still inequalities in access to greenspaces, felt most profoundly by those who often need them most (e.g. Barboza et al. 2021). This leads to health inequalities.  

Drone shot of Campbell Park, Milton Keynes

Health Inequalities in Greenspaces

Health inequalities are unfair and avoidable differences in health across the population, and between different groups within society. These include how long people are likely to live, the health conditions they may experience and the care that is available to them. - NHS 

We may or may not be aware but broader structural inequalities could be some of the barriers we might be experiencing in looking after our health, access to care and learning. 

There are existing inequalities in a number of areas that mean some individuals and communities are less likely to access nature, or have a positive experience in green or blue spaces. An example is during the COVID-19 pandemic, restrictions meant that people became more aware of nature that was available locally and had a better appreciation of the benefits from engaging with nature. Unfortunately, we also became more aware that these benefits were not spread equally, especially where people do not have access to a private green space, such as a garden.

In part I of this article, we will explore socio-economic and transport access inequalities. Part II of our article will focus on diversity and safety.

People’s financial circumstances can also compound this issue further. If there is a charge for accessing a space with nature this creates barriers. This could be an entrance fee, expensive parking fees or paying for the cost of public transport in order to get there. However, lack of suitable transport – public or private – is also a barrier to accessing nature. This means that people living in deprived urban areas are more likely to experience a double whammy of health inequality. Their financial circumstances will contribute to poorer health outcomes but they also struggle to access one of the things that can prevent them feeling worse.

There are also certain groups that struggle to access nature or may have a poor experience when they get there. People with disabilities may experience financial and transport barriers more than the general population, making getting to nature difficult in the first place (UK Government). Sometimes access to ‘destination’ parks is limited by access to a car, particularly as remote landscapes can be miles from towns and cities. However, lack of suitable provision such as even paths for wheelchair users, accessible toilets or plenty of seating for those with mobility problems, create further barriers and lead to a poor experience. This reduces the benefit that can be derived from being in nature.

Many of these issues are interlinked, and can compound each other. It is therefore important that access to and experience of nature is seen as a social justice issue as well. Not only that, more connection people feel with nature, the more they want to protect it so it is also important from a climate and environmental justice perspective.

Reducing socio-economic and transport access inequalities; the experience of The Parks Trust 

The Parks Trust, if you don’t already know, is a self-financing charity that cares for 6000 acres of parks and greenspace in Milton Keynes. The Parks Trust understands public parks are an amazing resource for health and wellbeing and that they need to be enjoyed by all, free of direct charge. In doing so, they facilitate equitable socio-economic access to greenspace. 

Residents of Milton Keynes and the UK are lucky to have many, many greenspaces on their doorsteps. Lots of towns have local nature reserves, community gardens or even recreation fields, all of which offer opportunities to get close to nature for your own health and wellbeing. Perhaps you have a greenspace near you that you have never thought to explore? 

Sheep in Campbell Park, Milton Keynes

Parks under the care of The Parks Trust in Milton Keynes were designed at the same time and alongside urban areas, which means local residents benefit from a network of linear parklands that weave through the city, which have benefits for both people as recreational route, and for wildlife as ecological corridors. What’s more, the Grand Union Canal which provides a huge green corridor for people and wildlife. Moreover, most people in Milton Keynes live within a 20-minute walk of their local park, and this applies to affluent areas as well as more deprived areas, and city planners built nearly every home with a garden. The Parks Trust has an excellent educational programme  which encourages children to visit their local park and learn about the nature and natural processes that happen there, which fosters lifelong enthusiasm and recognition of the benefits of greenspace. The Trust also engages with adults through volunteering programmes, guided walks and workshop activities. The Parks Trust team have witnessed the way in which people use local parks change through time, as when the city was designed, most people walked to their local park. Now many people drive across the city to visit their favourite spots. 

The Parks Trust advises that when visiting a park further afield, it’s worth checking ahead to see if it’s serviced by a local bus route, as often buses stop very nearby. Also, now lots of parks have bike parking, so local people can cycle there for free, and a car may not be necessary. Visitors may find it helpful to note the park’s What3Words  location, which can be found on the Trust’s park pages .

The Parks Trust advises that when visiting a park further afield, it’s worth checking ahead to see if it’s serviced by a local bus route, as often buses stop very nearby. Also, now lots of parks have bike parking, so you can cycle there for free, and a car may not be necessary. You may find it helpful to note the park’s What3Words location, which can be found on the Trust’s park pages. 

The Parks Trust are embarking on a journey to improve accessibility in their parks, and a huge tranche of this work is about providing visitors with the information they need before visiting. In 2023 surveys, visitors with lived experience of disability told The Parks Trust that good pre-visit information was one of the most important factors in their decision to visit a park. For many people just knowing how big the park is and where to park can remove anxiety about getting outdoors. The Parks Trust have enlisted the help of a panel of Access Ambassadors, individuals with lived experience of disability, to guide our work. They are encouraging Parks Trust staff to think creatively about getting more people out and about. The Trust also host MK Health Walks in their parks, which is a weekly rolling programme of walks around the city to boost participants’ physical, mental and social wellbeing. These are really popular and there are places and routes to suit everyone. Most local authorities will have a similar programme if you search online.

Cities and towns around the country are working hard to promote equitable access to the Great Outdoors, and you may be surprised at the number of different ways in which you can get involved. However, custodians of greenspace, can always do more and welcome public feedback on ways to improve. 


While there are significant benefits to health and wellbeing from natural spaces and people’s engagement therein, there are various barriers and inequalities for parts of our society. While we need for those who keep the natural spaces functioning and well, there is also a need to understand causes of inequality and address them whether it is socio-economic, transport access, or as we explore in Part II, Diversity and Safety. 



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