- Satellite data has unveiled extreme disparities between access to urban green spaces in South African cities, according to recent research by spatial ecologist, Zander Venter.
- He was able to work out that South Africans earning around $60 a month will, on average, walk 2.6 kilometers to reach their nearest park. On $1,700, residents will, on average, live 770 meters from their closest park.
- Green spaces are increasingly recognized as beneficial to human wellbeing in cities, both mental and physical.
- Venter found that, in 49 out of the 52 district municipalities in South Africa, there were stark disparities between access to parks, tree cover, and general greenery along the lines of race and income.
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Satellite data has revealed many South African city-dwellers are still living in a form of urban "green apartheid," according to recent research.
The research was conducted by Zander Venter, a spatial ecologist at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research and lead author of a paper titled Green Apartheid: Urban green infrastructure remains unequally distributed across income and race geographies in South Africa.
"A lot of South Africans live in denial in terms of thinking that inequality should have changed by now after over 25 years of democracy," said Venter. "I think that's incredibly short-sighted. With a publication like this, I am trying to use science to communicate facts about spatial inequality in South Africa."
Using open-source satellite imagery, geographic information, and national census statistics, Venter examined just how accessible urban green spaces are in South Africa, along the lines of income and race.
By locating all parks in South Africa with the satellite imagery and calculating the closest distance for each household to a park, Venter's research group found that suburbs dominated by white South Africans have their closest park 700 meters from their residence, on average.
For Black South Africans, this distance is 1,700 meters.
The stark disparities can be explored in different South African cities using interactive maps here.
There's a persistent historical overlap between wealth and race
During Apartheid and colonial city planning, infrastructures like highways and industrial zones were used to create physical divisions along the lines of race.
That legacy lives on even in urban green spaces, where Venter found all but three of the 52 district municipalities in the country displaying a noticeably clear contrast in access to parks, general tree cover, and general vegetation being divided across racial and income lines.
Green spaces are increasingly being recognized as beneficial to human wellbeing in cities.
As well as promoting mental and physical health in urban residents and lowering morbidity and mortality, they can offer stress alleviation, social cohesion, they can support physical activity and minimize exposure to air pollutants and noise.
The data also showed citizens earning roughly $60 a month can walk 2.6 kilometers to get to their nearest park. In contrast, a person earning around $1,700 per month is likely to walk 770 meters to find one.
"A lot of South Africans live in denial, thinking inequality should have changed after over 25 years of democracy"
"In some ways, this is not surprising because anyone driving through streets in SA can see this. But, while there is significant growing research on it, no one has quantified the data at the national scale before," said Venter.
"I was expecting some cities that would jump out being hugely unequal. What surprised me the most was that across all South African municipalities the inequality was prevalent, virtually all municipalities had similar levels of inequality and they are equally prevalent in public as in private space."
"For instance, [in Cape Town] white-dominated areas have twice as much greenery as you would expect given their share of the population," said Venter.
Using satellite imagery that goes back to the 1980s Venter was also able to quantify that in certain cases the inequality in "greenness" had deepened, with Cape Town and Johannesburg displaying starker inequalities.
Venter hopes the paper can form a baseline to help municipalities target and launch urban green planning initiatives.
The government has made efforts to redress the inequality through the national Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act (SPLUMA, Act 16 of 2013), which came into effect in 2015.
This act provides legislative priority to address past spatial and regulatory imbalances and give equitable access to redress spatial inequalities.
But according to Venter's data, it's too early to tell if it's made any impact.
"Future work would do well to research how the demand for urban greenery differs between neighborhoods," said Venter.
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