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Utah neighborhoods have varying health benefits from nature

People who live in two Salt Lake County neighborhoods less than 20 miles apart have vastly different views out their windows.

One, in West Valley City, is mostly in a built environment with backyard views of public storage and loading docks for strip malls, offering residents few opportunities to step out their front doors into nature.

In the other, along Salt Lake City’s East Bench, residents can walk to a trail leading up Grandeur Peak or be in Millcreek Canyon within minutes.

These two neighborhoods illustrate that where Utahns live, who their neighbors are and how much money they make often determine their chances of enjoying the health benefits of Utah’s nature-rich landscape.

Access to green space — trees and grass and natural beauty — isn’t just a nice thing to have. As Shane Moore, director of parks and community services in St. George, said, there is “a definite correlation between mental health and access to open space.”

The urban areas where most of Utah’s population lives are not rich in health-supporting nature, such as mountains and national parks, according to an analysis by NatureQuant, an Oregon-based company. That’s particularly true in areas that are historically underprivileged — whether by way of their economic status or demographic diversity.

Applying NatureQuant’s measuring system — a “NatureScore,” a value between zero and 100 based on environmental conditions and other metrics — to the two Salt Lake County neighborhoods (or “census tracts,” to use the government’s term for relatively permanent statistical areas) shows the difference geography, income and demographics can make.

• The census tract in West Valley City has a NatureScore of 4.4. More than half of the residents there identify as Hispanic or Latino, and nearly half speak a language other than English at home. Fewer than 10% of that area’s residents have a bachelor’s degree, and the median household income is $68,111.

• Over on Salt Lake City’s east side, the other census tract including neighborhoods at the mouth of Millcreek Canyon rates a NatureScore of 97.6. In that part of the county, 82% of residents identify as non-Hispanic white, and very few speak anything other than English at home. More than 30% have a bachelor’s degree, and the median household income is $178,810.

Moore noted that economically and socially underserved communities often have less green space.

That’s why communities across Utah — including St. George, Salt Lake City and West Valley City — are working to bring the healing benefits of nature closer to the people, by planting trees in parks and neighborhoods and restocking native plants along trails.

Why nature matters

Decades of research have shown that proximity to nature – specifically biodiversity – is good for health outcomes, said Jared Hanley, NatureQuant’s founder and CEO.

Developing a NatureScore, Hanley said, is a large, machine-learning process. It analyzes about 30 data sets, including satellite images of vegetation, land use classifications, tree canopy cover, air pollution, noise levels and impervious surfaces like concrete and asphalt.

The process generates a score correlating with one of five “leaf” classifications – deficient, light, adequate, rich or utopia.

Hanley added that proximity, not access, is key. It isn’t enough to be able to drive to a park within five minutes, he said, because the best benefits come when people are within 500 meters — a third of a mile — of nature.

St. George has a goal of getting a park or trail within a half mile of every house, Moore said.

The city is close to that goal for most residents, Moore said, and he has frequent conversations with people about why it’s important. For one, he said, it’s important for families with young children.

“These park areas become a respite for (young parents) mentally to be able to … raise toddlers, raise little kids,” he said, because it gives them the chance to take a break while their kids play.

Natasha Plett said she can feel herself calming down when she brings her two young children to Fitts Park in South Salt Lake. The park, about 8 acres, is different from typical parks, she said, because it offers a variety of plants and wildlife.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fitts Park at 3050 S. 500 East, in South Salt Lake, is pictured on Thursday, May 16, 2024.

Her 7-year-old and 9-year-old will spend hours playing and enjoying nature.

“They like exploring not so much the playground but the ducks, the plants,” Plett said.

Sharen Hauri, South Salt Lake’s director of neighborhoods, called Fitts Park a “little green lung” in a municipality known for having a lot of immigrants and refugees. It’s a place for after-school programs and exploring a natural area along Millcreek, Hauri said during a recent Saturday morning tree planting there.

Even with Fitts Park, that census tract in South Salt Lake only has a NatureScore of 28.1. The tract just southwest has more demographic diversity and a median income that’s $4,342 lower. It also has a lower NatureScore, at just 17.3.

The stark difference from east to west – both in the neighborhood and across the city – doesn’t surprise Nigel Marabello, who helped with that Saturday tree planting.

He can see the dwindling green moving toward and past Interstate 15 from the air, every time he flies into and out of Salt Lake City.

“To me, that’s not as healthy, because I think it’s really important to make sure people have access to trees as much as possible, regardless of their economic position,” Marabello said.

West-side woes

Seeking that environmental fairness has become a major issue for the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, better known as HEAL Utah.

The nonprofit advocacy group started as a response to concerns over radioactive waste in Tooele County, west of the Salt Lake Valley — but more recently has been working on the west side of Utah’s capital city to push for better air quality and environmental justice.

“The more we have access to nature, the more we have access to trees,” said Melanie Hall, senior policy associate with HEAL Utah. “They are actually working as air and water purification systems for us.”

Planting trees “really helps enhance (park spaces) and create more tree diversity in our urban forests and more cooling shade,” said Amy May, executive director of Tree Utah, which works to plant in the state’s historically disadvantaged areas.

On Salt Lake City’s west side, though, instead of a dense tree canopy, gigantic interstates, belching railyards, an international airport and an active power plant dominate the cityscape.

Four west-side neighborhoods stand out for lacking proximity to nature: Westpointe, Jordan Meadows, Fairpark and Poplar Grove. Portions of each are rated “nature deficient” by NatureQuant, ranging in score from 6.3 to 18.

Not only does the west side have an underdeveloped tree canopy, but it also has few large parks. The only green spaces of significance in the census tracts that rated poorly are Sherwood Park’s three grass baseball fields and the thin ribbon of the Jordan River and its adjacent trail.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Looking north on 1400 West near Pierpont Avenue, on Thursday, May 23, 2024.

West-siders want natural spaces in their neighborhood, according to Dan Potts, a Poplar Grove resident and board member of the nonprofit Salt Lake Fish and Game Foundation.

Potts pointed to a 2020 Envision Utah survey of people who use the Jordan River Trail as evidence that people want to see more biodiversity and open space along the river. More than 75% of respondents said they wanted to see more natural lands by the river.

“They don’t care about identifying birds,” Potts said. “They just want to get someplace where they can decompress.”

Decompressing can be hard when the built environment is hostile to nature and outdoor activity. NatureQuant also includes air pollution data in its rating system and uses satellite imagery to evaluate the built environment around an address. So, the concrete and semitrailer trucks of I-80, I-15 and I-215 that ring the west side drive down the scores.

Proximity to the interstates, and the pollution that they bring, is also a factor in people’s physical health — asthma rates are much higher on the west side, for example — but there’s also “a mental health component,” said Hall from HEAL Utah. “Just seeing the physical barriers, seeing the freeway as the thing that’s next to your school or your home rather than a tree canopy … tells you over and over that you are living in a community that has not been invested in, not in the same way the east side has been invested in,” Hall said.

Slightly southwest of Salt Lake City’s west side lies West Valley City, Utah’s second-largest municipality — where freeways divide neighborhoods and the manufacturing industry remains a large part of the economy.

Here, the worst-off neighborhoods by score are adjacent to the city’s major thoroughfares, especially I-215, State Route 201 and Bangerter Highway. They’re also concentrated in the older, eastern part of the city.

Steve Pastorik, West Valley City’s community development director, said he was “not surprised” that those older neighborhoods have lower access to green space — because it’s hard to locate and build new parks there.

“West Valley is approximately 90% built out,” Pastorik said. “And so, there are areas where it’s pretty challenging, in that there’s just not vacant land left. Now, we do have vacant land in the city — but in some established neighborhoods that may be lacking a park, the opportunities to acquire just vacant land are very limited.”

Biodiversity, even planned, isn’t evenly distributed

When people think of Utah, often what comes to mind is the image of people out in nature — such as hiking in the “Mighty Five” national parks or skiing “The Greatest Snow on Earth.”

Yet NatureQuant’s analysis classifies about half of Utah’s census tracts as “nature rich” or “nature utopia.” That’s the ninth lowest of all 50 states and Washington, D.C. — and several points lower than the national rate of almost 70%.

All but one of the 10 states with the highest proportion of census tracts with at least a “nature rich” score are east of the Mississippi River — which would seem to contradict the view Westerners have of their home as being the “open range” of the West.

Most Eastern states, Hanley said, have denser vegetation and a larger variety of it.

“One thing Utah doesn’t have going for it, frankly, is its desert,” he said.

However, many counties in southeastern Utah have scores indicating higher proximity to nature than its urban counties, though they also have fewer census tracts.

Less than 30% of the 251 census tracts in Salt Lake County are classified as “nature rich” or “nature utopia” — while all three of the census tracts in Grand County fall into those categories.

Many Utah counties are entirely natural “utopias” — from Beaver County in the southwest to San Juan County in the southeast, and from Rich County in the central north to Daggett County in the northeast corner. Those counties all also have three census tracts or fewer.

In Utah’s more populated counties, areas are more built-up areas and have less biodiversity. And where people living in cities are closer to nature, they tend to be in wealthier, less diverse areas.

For example, the average median household income in neighborhoods rated as “nature deficient” is $69,400. That increases up to $100,597 for “nature rich” neighborhoods, though it dips down to $92,934 for census tracts classified as a “nature utopia.” Many of those tracts are in rural counties that have lower household incomes.

People are also generally more likely to make at least $150,000 a year as a census tract’s leaf rating increases.

And neighborhoods become more white with fewer residents who identify as Hispanic or Latino as they get closer to nature, from 67.3% white and 25.8% Hispanic or Latino on average in tracts rated as “nature deficient” to an average of:

  • 76.8% white and 21.1% Hispanic or Latino in neighborhoods classified as “nature light.”

  • 82% white and 15.1% Hispanic or Latino in neighborhoods classified as “nature adequate.”

  • 85.1% white and 11.5% Hispanic or Latino in neighborhoods classified as “nature rich.”

  • 87.1% white and 10.1% Hispanic or Latino in neighborhoods classified as “nature utopia.”

Individual tracts may differ from these trends.

Find your own neighborhood’s NatureScore at naturequant.com/naturescore/.

Hanley said the analysis tends to show trees and biodiversity often aren’t evenly distributed, and he agreed there are inequities behind those distributions that society needs to fix.

Planting more trees, increasing biodiversity

City officials across Utah have been working to make some of those fixes.

In recent years, Salt Lake City has planted thousands of trees, with mixed success, as part of a push by Mayor Erin Mendenhall. Salt Lake City’s public lands department is also looking to boost biodiversity on the west side by planting more native greenery along the channelized Jordan River.

The Fife Wetlands Preserve, on the southern end of Poplar Grove, is one of the target locations for that program. Tyler Murdock, deputy director of the department, said he wants to make places like Fife Wetlands lush but still proximate.

“Many people within Salt Lake City don’t have access or the ability to get to really wild, natural lands,” Murdock said on a recent visit to another property along the river. “And when you think about, even, the proximity to the Wasatch Mountains, many people in our west-side communities aren’t frequently visiting Little Cottonwood or Big Cottonwood (canyons).”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mallards at Fife Wetlands Preserve, 952 S. 1100 West in Salt Lake City, are pictured on Friday, May 17, 2024.

Hall, with HEAL Utah, also advocated for creating safer, more pleasant walking routes in west-side neighborhoods, to encourage people to get out on foot more often and reduce fears of auto-pedestrian crashes.

St. George has tried to make sure its urban trail system offers “little oases in the desert,” Moore said, by keeping the riparian zones intact. Doing so means city residents can “kind of get out of the density and get into nature within a pretty easy walk,” he said.

In Logan, city officials are concentrating their efforts on the northwest and southwest neighborhoods, which are more built up than other residential areas, said Russ Akina, the city’s parks director.

Logan is looking to put in a neighborhood park and other amenities west of Main Street, Akina said, where people don’t have a park or recreational experience within a mile and a half of their homes.

West Valley City is trying to leap on those rare opportunities to buy land when it becomes available. The city recently acquired one of the last remaining parcels of farmland within city limits at 4430 Maple Meadows Drive. While the property isn’t in one of those nature-deficient neighborhoods, it is just three blocks west of one of the census tracts bisected by Bangerter Highway.

Pastorik, with West Valley City, also said the city can incorporate green spaces into redevelopment projects, even if new construction results in greater density.

Similarly, West Valley City has landscaping rules on the books that require some property owners to install and care for trees. So, as redevelopment happens in neighborhoods that weren’t built with those rules in mind, Pastorik said he expects more trees to be planted, too.

NatureQuant works with local governments to identify neighborhoods most in need of trees to boost health and cool down city streets.

It can be expensive to plant a lot of trees and build new parks, Hanley acknowledged, but some evidence suggests that even looking at nature helps calm people.

“Even when you don’t have access to the green, if you’re close to it, it does have a positive health impact,” he said.

Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions. Jose Davila IV covers west-side communities and is a Report for America corps member.

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