Green Apartheid

  • A new research paper has used satellite data to unveil the extreme disparities between access to urban green spaces in South African cities. 
  • Using the data, spacial ecologist Zander Venter was able to work out citizens earning R1,000 a month will on average walk 2.6 kilometres to get to their nearest park while a person earning R30,000 per month is likely to live 770 metres from their closest park.
  • Venter found all but three of the 52 district municipalities in the country displayed a noticeably clear contrast in access to parks, general tree cover and general vegetation greenness being divided across racial and income lines.
  • For more articles, go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

New research which uses satellite data has revealed ‘urban green spaces’ are unequally and racially distributed in South African cities.  

Published in the journal Landscape and Urban planning, the paper used open-source satellite imagery and geographic information, coupled with national census statistics, to look at just how disproportionately available urban green infrastructure is in South Africa. 

"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 Zander Venter, a spacial ecologist at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research and lead author of Green Apartheid: Urban green infrastructure remains unequally distributed across income and race geographies in South Africa. 

"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."

Green spaces are increasingly being recognised as beneficial to human wellbeing in cities. They promote urban sustainability; improve air quality; reduce urban heat and carbon sequestration; help with water filtration for recharging aquifers; and can provide food.

But within South Africa there is also a strong historical overlap between wealth and race. This is thanks to Apartheid and colonial city planning that divided race by using infrastructures like highways and industrial zones to separate them.

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 greenness being divided across racial and income lines.

By locating all parks in South Africa using satellite imagery and then calculating the closest distance for each household to a park, the researchers found suburbs dominated by white South Africans have their closest park 700 metres from their residence, for black South Africans this is 1.7 kilometres.

The data also showed citizens earning R1,000 a month can walk 2.6 kilometres to get to their nearest park. In contrast, a person earning R30,000 per month is likely to walk 770 metres to find one.

Using satellite imagery that goes back to the 1980s Venter was also able to quantify that in certain cases the inequalities deepened in neighbourhood greenness, with Cape Town and Johannesburg, displaying a more stark inequality.  

"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.

"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. I think that’s incredibly short-sighted. With a publication like this I am trying to use science to communicate facts about spacial inequality in South Africa," said Venter.

What Venter hopes for is that the paper can form a baseline that can help municipalities target and launch urban green planning initiatives.

Government has made efforts to redress the inequality though the national Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act (SPLUMA, Act 16 of 2013), which came into effect in 2015 – but according to Venter’s data it is too early to tell if it has made any impact.  This act provides legislative priority to address past spatial and regulatory imbalances and give equitable access to redress spatial inequalities.

There is also a concern that not everyone values nature the same way.

"A lot of the paper is based on the assumption that urban green spaces are desirable and beneficial thing to have. But in some cases, for example, trees may act as hiding places for criminals and contribute to a landscape of fear in some neighbourhoods."

"Future work would do well to research how the demand for urban greenery differs between neighbourhoods."

Take a look at some of the cities we looked at or you can interact with the data yourself here at green-apartheid.zsv.co.za:

Johannesburg

Income vs greenery

Race vs Greenery

Cape Town

Income vs greenery

Race vs Greenery

Durban

Income vs greenery

Race vs Greenery

Bloemfontein

Income vs greenery

Race vs Greenery

The paper can be read in full here: Green Apartheid: Urban green infrastructure remains unequally distributed across income and race geographies in South Africa


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