Improving tree cover and access to parks and green spaces in Los Angeles County, particularly in low-income communities of color, could significantly increase the life expectancy of local residents, according to a new study by UCLA researchers and public health colleagues. Their study, published in the peer-reviewed open access journal Environment International, is the first in the U. S. to combine life expectancy data at the census district level with data on parks, trees and general neighborhood vegetation.
Researchers quantified the relationship between life expectancy and the amount of green space in census tracts in Los Angeles County. They found that two-thirds of the county's black and Latino populations live in areas that have disproportionately lower green coverage and a lower average life expectancy. They estimated that by increasing tree canopy, vegetation and access to parks in areas poor in green areas, county residents could increase overall life expectancy by hundreds of thousands of years. Previous research has suggested that parks and vegetation have mental and physical health benefits for residents of urban areas, providing clean air for breathing, shade when it's hot, and open, secluded areas for recreation and mental relaxation.
The current findings expand those potential benefits and, according to the study authors, provide policy makers with a plan for specific ecological strategies that could increase the longevity of predominantly black and Latino residents of “park-poor” neighborhoods and help reduce health disparities in the region. Using recently available data from the U. S., the research team developed a model that quantified the relationship between life expectancy and the amount of tree canopy cover, living green vegetation, and accessible park space in census tracts in Los Angeles County. Vegetation data was extracted from the Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation, the U.
Department of Parks and Recreation, U. Department of Agriculture, local environmental organization Tree People and other sources. If tree crowns and green vegetation rose to the county's average levels in each census district, residents of areas that are currently below those medians could increase overall life expectancy by 570,300 to 908,800 years. If the park area were increased to the average level of 54 acres in census areas with below-average park space and tree canopies, approximately 155,300 years of life expectancy could be gained throughout the county.
The total increase of more than 155,300 years includes an increase of more than 110,000 years in life expectancy for black and Latino residents alone. However, researchers found that increasing access to parks in areas that are already above the county average for green space and tree canopies, such as in many neighborhoods on the west side, would not have a significant impact on life expectancy. The results of the study are already being used in related research funded by the California Air Resources Board to estimate the health benefits of increasing green space and tree canopy in California. This information will help the board develop an analysis plan to manage the impacts of climate change by investing in parks, planting trees and expanding green spaces.
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By doing so they could help reduce health disparities among black and Latino populations while also increasing overall life expectancy throughout the county.