Green spaces are good for people – but in South Africa many cannot access them

The benefits of experiencing nature for physical , psychological and spiritual well-being are
widely documented. But much of the research on these benefits has been done in relatively
affluent countries in the global North. There’s little research that has been done in developing
countries on the benefits of being in nature.
Development and urban planning approaches in developing countries reflect this . While they
rightfully emphasise economic development, housing and sanitation, they commonly treat access
to green space as a luxury to enjoy once basic needs are met.
In an era of accelerating urbanisation, particularly in developing countries, nature experience is
becoming increasingly rare. And as with many other types of amenities, access to nature and
green spaces is highly skewed along socio-economic lines.
In South Africa, there remains a stark contrast in access to nature and green spaces between
areas that were divided along racial lines during apartheid. It includes highly uneven distribution
of city trees and green spaces, a situation that has been dubbed “ green apartheid ”.

We have been researching for the past decade the relationships isiXhosa-speaking people in
urban and rural settings in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province have with their natural
environment. Our definition of “nature” includes anything from dense natural forest in rural areas,
to patches of bush and communal grazing land around towns and villages.
We found that across a range of urban to rural locations, age and gender, most people we
interviewed had a strong appreciation for nature. Even though many had limited access to
natural spaces, and seldom visited them, they valued such spaces for their contribution to a
sense of well-being, identity and shared heritage. Many also described how visiting nature eased
feelings of hardship, stress, and loneliness.
Employment, housing, water and sanitation remain urgent priorities for urban and rural
development. Nevertheless, as our research shows, the contribution access to nature makes to
people’s well-being is important. Growing evidence suggests that access to green space has the
most pronounced benefits among the lowest socioeconomic groups.

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