Perla Aceves: Are green spaces across Salt Lake County equitable?

Now is the time to start involving residents in green space projects.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City's Green Loop on Saturday, June 3, 2023.

Green spaces are not just places that “look nice,” they are essential to the well-being of our communities and are deeply rooted in issues surrounding social justice and climate change.

Green spaces are areas that contain varying amounts of vegetation, such as shrubs, grasses and tree cover. These spaces are especially important in urban communities like Salt Lake City where instances of air pollution are highest. Green space is essential for the mitigation of air pollution because vegetation such as shrubs and trees have the amazing ability to remove harmful pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide from the atmosphere. Improving and adding green space in at least Salt Lake County’s Districts 1 and 2 is a step towards Salt Lake City’s “climate positive” goal of a 50% reduction in the communities footprint by 2030.

The residents of Salt Lake County’s Districts 1 and 2 (Rose Park, Glendale, Fairpark, Poplar Grove and West Pointe) are disproportionately impacted by Salt Lake’s poor air quality because of the regions’ history of redlining and their close proximity to pollutants, such as highways and industrial areas. Redlining was the process in which the government listed primarily minority neighborhoods as undesirable for real-estate investment purposes. Areas that have been historically redlined contain higher densities of low-income residents, less vegetation, higher average neighborhood temperatures and are disproportionately impacted by climate change. Redlining in Salt Lake County has led to a drastic difference in green space between the districts separated by I-15.

Communities west of I-15 (Rose Park, Glendale, Fairpark, Poplar Grove and West Pointe) contain less tree cover on average than areas east of I-15 (Sugar House, Foothill, Marmalade and Greater Avenues, etc.). This is a problem because green spaces, such as trees, are important in improving community health, promoting individual connection to nature, increasing biodiversity, improving air quality and adapting to climate change.

Green spaces provide a slew of benefits to the local ecosystem. Green infrastructure encourages habitat connectivity, which provides more spaces for wildlife to safely live in. Increased biodiversity in vegetation can also purify waterways, mitigate flooding, reduce particulate matter and reduce erosion. Most importantly, green spaces can increase climate resiliency in communities. This is especially important as communities of color and low income communities will disproportionately experience pollution, flooding and heatwaves due to climate change.

One such climate issue in Salt Lake that is already affecting its residents are urban heat islands. Urban heat islands are urban areas that experience hotter temperatures compared to neighboring rural areas due to the higher density of buildings and pavement, which, in turn, retain more heat. The differences in temperature worsen with less green space. Neighborhoods with more areas of pavement are, on average, 2 degrees higher than urban parks. The absence of green space in a neighborhood can be especially problematic during the summer, when people are at a higher risk for heat-related injuries and deaths due to heat exhaustion, heatstroke and dehydration.

Increased temperatures in urban areas have also been associated with increased energy usage which leads to higher levels of pollution and greenhouse gasses.

Low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately affected by the consequences of urban heat islands. This is because of a higher chance of power outages due to poor infrastructure or inability to afford expensive air conditioning systems, which can make the heat all the more unbearable.

Considering all of the ways green spaces influence the welfare of our communities and environment, it can be concluded that their presence in District 1 and 2 are a must. Now is the time to start involving residents in green space projects.

The recent green space pop-up in downtown Salt Lake City — known as the “green loop” — is a great example of ways district leaders can involve the community in green space development projects. Projects like this help people envision the potential of green space in their own neighborhoods and also help leaders gain valuable insight on what the public feels is missing from or working well for the space.

Districts 1 and 2 need more quality green spaces in the form of parks, improved riparian areas, mini forests, shaded areas and community gardens. They are so important in ensuring every resident of Salt Lake County has equitable access to quality green spaces across Salt Lake.

(Perla Aceves) In a guest commentary for The Salt Lake Tribune, Perla Aceves writes that “green spaces are not just places that ‘look nice,’ they are essential to the wellbeing of our communities and are deeply rooted in issues surrounding social justice and climate change.”

Perla Aceves is a resident of Fairpark. She is a student at the University of Utah and cares about equitable solutions for community resilience against climate change.