Greenwash: have the benefits of green space been exaggerated?

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Greenwash” is sometimes used to describe exaggerated or otherwise misleading claims made about a product or company’s environmental benefits.  People are understandably becoming more and more cynical about environmental friendliness claims – but the danger is that genuine environmental benefits are rejected along with the greenwash, which “threatens the whole business rationale for becoming more environmentally friendly” (Futerra 2008). 

I am concerned that the green space and health research agenda is at risk of being overtaken by a form of greenwash, as ironic as that may sound.  Green spaces – also known as natural/vegetated/open spaces – clearly have some social, environmental and economic benefits.  The research of CRESH and many other groups has demonstrated this.  But these benefits are not experienced everywhere, or by everyone.  The same wooded park may be a valued jogging or walking area for some people, but a terrifying no-go area for others.  There is much important research to be done to understand and address the barriers that prevent different groups benefitting from green spaces.  CRESH researchers are among many jointly trying to bridge this knowledge gap.

The greenwash that concerns me is the mantra that ‘green space is good’ – end of story.  At a recent GreenHealth Conference (11th March 2013, Edinburgh) the fascinating results from a four-year Scottish Government funded research programme were presented.  CRESH’s own Rich Mitchell presented on the topic “More green = better health?” and concluded that this is not always the case (see blog post).  Nonetheless, in one of the afternoon discussions one attendee called for less research and more action “because we know green space is good already”.  Additionally, some important Greenspace Scotland work – showing that investment in ten community green space projects across Scotland provides good social, environmental and economic value for money – has been misleadingly reported elsewhere as “Greenspace is good… fact!”  This is greenwash.  It is also an example of a factoid – an assumption or speculation that is reported and repeated until it is considered true (see Cummins and Macintyre’s 2002 paper on how “food deserts” made it into UK policy by such a pathway).  Policy-making based on assumptions is dangerous: Cummins and Macintyre urge policy makers to look at the facts more critically.

Jane Jacobs – the influential American writer on urban planning – wrote about the greenwash surrounding green spaces (or ‘grass fetishes’ as she called it) more than 50 years ago.  In The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961, Random House, NY) she wrote that “In orthodox city planning, neighbourhood open spaces are venerated in an amazingly uncritical fashion…” (p.90).  She qualifies that, while ”parks can and do add great attraction to neighbourhoods that people find attractive for a great variety of other uses”, they may also “exaggerate the dullness, the danger, the emptiness” (p.111).  If the barriers to green space use are not identified and addressed local people cannot be expected to use and benefit from them, regardless of the intentions of well-meaning city planners.  Informing people that ‘green space is good’ won’t help.  The danger is that when their touted benefits don’t materialise, green spaces may fall out of favour, when in truth, and with greater attention to what the evidence tells us, they may have been a great public health resource.  Instead of less research we urgently need to strengthen the evidence base and publicise our findings more widely.  Watch this space.

Author: Liz Richardson

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