10 May 1999

Green space fosters social ties among families

A recent study conducted by the University of Illinois indicates that having easily visible and useable grass and trees helps to foster social ties and a sense of community among residents in low-income, inner-city housing.

For families living in poverty, an important survival strategy is to share resources in larger social networks. Because common spaces with trees and grass bring people closer together, the addition of simple landscaping may promote this informal form of social security and reduce the reliance on costly social services, the researchers suggest. The findings were published in the latest American Journal of Community Psychology.

Focusing on 145 female residents - all heads of household - in an inner city Chicago area, researchers looked closely at the relationship between the "greenness of common space" and neighborhood social ties.

The housing unit offers a good laboratory for such studies because of its setting in one of the United States' poorest urban areas.

Residents are similar in income, education and life circumstances. Landscaping between the 28 identically structured high-rise buildings varies from pavement to dirt to grass and to grass and trees. Because apartments are assigned solely on the basis of a family's space requirement, there is no reason to think there is anything special about residents who end up with housing near green spaces.

"In this study, we found that the more vegetation in a common space, the stronger the neighborhood social ties near that space," wrote Frances E. Kuo, William Sullivan and Liesette Brunson of the U. of I. and Rebekah Levine Coley of the University of Chicago.

"Compared to residents living adjacent to relatively barren spaces, individuals living adjacent to greener common spaces had more social activities and more visitors, knew more of their neighbors, reported their neighbors were more concerned with helping and supporting one another, and had stronger feelings of belonging."

Why? Trees and grass seem to draw residents outside, the authors theorize, providing opportunities for casual contact among neighbors and forming a springboard for friendship.

The findings are part of a series of studies focusing on inner city housing developments, led by Kuo and Sullivan, co-directors of the U. of I. Human-Environment Research Laboratory. They previously reported that residents wanted - and felt safer in - the presence of green grass and trees, and that such greenery supports children's play, particularly creative forms of play, and encourages the presence of adult supervision.