The science regarding the health and well-being benefits of green space is unequivocal. They include improved cognitive development and functioning, reduced symptom severity of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, reduced obesity and positive impacts on mental health but access to nature is not equal. Studies show that lower-income communities have less access compared to affluent communities.
The news is more alarming when race is considered. In 2019, the Center for American Progress and the Hispanic Access Foundation released a report finding that communities of color experience “nature deprivation” at three times the rate of white Americans. Another 2019 study echoed much the same. Researchers at the University of British Columbia examined 10 U.S. cities, including New York, Chicago, Houston, and others, and found that Latino and Black communities have less access to urban nature than white communities. The authors write, “Urban residents with lower access to urban vegetation, according to our analyses, are also those who are most likely to experience poor public health outcomes that could potentially be mitigated by adequate exposure to urban vegetation.”
What about for children? Childhood exposure to green space — parks, forests, rural lands, etc. — reduces the risk of psychiatric disorders. Scientists have found that those who grow up with the least green space nearby had as much as a 55% increased risk of developing psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse in later years.
In 2019, about 82.5% of the total population in the United States lived in cities and urban areas and yet, across the country, more than 100 million people lack safe and easy access to parks within a half-mile of home.
Green space encourages exercise, provides spaces for socializing, decreases stress, and decreases both noise and air pollution, but more parks aren’t always possible or the best solution. New parks can be expensive, especially in the urban core and in a weird environmental justice twist, they can increase the value of surrounding properties, catalyzing gentrification via increased property values and taxation. Maintaining existing parks to make them more welcoming is an often-overlooked aspect of the equation, but it has proven to be a game changer.
Green Spaces Deserve Clean Mowers
In Miami Dade County, for example, the Miami-Dade Parks Department ensures park accessibility for 122 neighborhoods. The Parks Department operates an 86-person crew responsible for, among other things, the lawn mowing of more than 20 acres of athletic fields and today, about 95% of the department’s fleet runs on propane for another environmental justice reason: Removing gas mowers and their emissions, which aren’t healthy for the operator or neighborhoods, is an air quality double bonus. A propane mower can reduce greenhouse (GHG) emissions by 17%, nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions by 19% and sulfur oxide (SOx) emissions by 16% when compared to gasoline. When air quality action days restrict use of gasoline equipment, propane can keep working and keep the parks open.
San Antonio Missions National Historical Park (NHP) is another showcase for the connection between propane and sustainability. The nearly 1,000-acre urban site in San Antonio, Texas, contains the largest collection of Spanish colonial cultural resources in the United States, including three waterways. Gasoline or diesel mowers could spill fuel into these sensitive environmental features. Propane poses no such hazard. If released, it vaporizes harmlessly into the air.
In both these cases, cost of operation is a common denominator and presents a barrier to providing access to more green space for more people. The good news is that propane is typically 30% to 50% less expensivethan gasoline and maintenance costs are significantly lower.
May is National Clean Air Month and propane is doing more than meets the eye. It’s the affordable power behind well-maintained green urban spaces across the country, which is a key reason the Department of Energy promotes propane mower usage through its Clean Cities Program. That same power makes it possible for urban residents to enjoy the social, psychological and health benefits green space provides.