I am lucky in that the living room window of my small flat looks out onto a view with trees in it. There’s a bit of sky. I sit at my computer to work, and I am facing a horse chestnut tree. Often that tree is full of birds. Over recent days, the leaves have been unfurling and they will be fully open in a day or two and after that will come the flowers.
I feel very fortunate. For many people living in flats right now, there is nothing good to look at outside the window. There is nothing to rejoice in and be uplifted by. We know that green space is good for our mental health, but the way we’re responding to the virus is overlooking this, especially for the poorest of us. What do you do if your home is small and overcrowded, with no garden, no space indoors to exercise, you can’t travel to a green space and there isn’t one where you live?
If we had plenty of green spaces, everyone could get out to exercise and take what care they can of their mental health and there would be no crowding of popular spots. In practice large gardens and access to green spaces go with affluence. There is a huge difference between staying home with a garden, and having no outside space you are entitled to be in. There is a huge difference between a view with some trees in it, and a view of other buildings. The mental health implications of being trapped with no green space, are huge.
What social distancing and isolation means depends a lot on where you are doing it, and that in turn depends on how rich you are. What’s happening now is that the impact of pressures and inequalities that were always there are becoming that bit more obvious. The lack of green spaces for many has always been a mental health issue. The cramped, inadequate conditions many people live in, have always been a problem. Mental health problems have been at an epidemic level for years. Stripped of our coping mechanisms and forced to stay in, many of us who were in challenging situations to begin with will be forced to suffer more.
Access to trees should not be a matter of wealth. Green space should not just be a middle class thing, it should be for everyone. Green spaces help us stay well, in body and mind and this has never been more visible than it is right now. Access to trees is a facet of social justice that often gets overlooked, but it is part of a great deal of systemic injustice that urgently needs changing.