By Krissie Ferris, Research Analyst, Centre for Health Solutions
This week is the UK’s national Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW). This year’s theme is ‘Nature’ and how connecting with the natural world can support ‘good mental health’.1 During the long months of the pandemic, research by the Mental Health Foundation found that millions of people have turned to nature to help get through lockdowns, their findings showing that connecting with nature can be both preventative as well as aid recovery from poor mental health. Its research found that going for walks outside was one of the top coping strategies during lockdowns, and 45 per cent reported that being in green spaces has been vital for their mental health.2 However, the pandemic has highlighted huge disparities in access to natural spaces, especially for people living in urban areas, as well as those on lower incomes. This blog explores how a ‘nature in all policies’ approach could improve the nation’s health and wellbeing.
Why the natural environment is so important to our health and wellbeing
There is a wealth of evidence that shows spending time in natural environments (such as parks, woodlands, lakes and beaches) can have a positive impact on both our physical and mental health (Figure 1). Public Health England recognises that spending time in greenspace is associated with a range of health-related benefits, from improved quality of life in children and adults, to reduced stress – including improvements in children’s skills and development.3 In 2010, Sir Michael Marmot’s Review into health inequalities recommended that increasing the availability of good quality green spaces would help reduce health inequalities, yet, despite wide recognition of the value of greenspace, quality and access of public greenspace has declined.4
Figure 1. Ways in which greenspace may be linked to positive health outcomes
Source: Adapted from Public Health England, 2020
Today, over half (55 per cent) of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and that is expected to rise to nearly 70 per cent by 2040.5Moreover, there is insufficient and unequal access to greenspace. In the UK, one in eight households lacked access to a private or shared garden during the COVID-19 lockdowns.6 Furthermore, the percentage of homes without a garden (private, shared, patio or balcony) is higher among ethnic minorities, with Black people in England nearly four times as likely as White people to have no outdoor space at home (37 per cent compared with 10 per cent).7
The benefits of investing in ‘green’ solutions, and how this can be achieved
Increasing access, use and availability of greenspace can deliver a significant return on investment in health and wellbeing-related savings. For example:
- Estimates suggest the NHS could save an estimated £2.1 billion a year by increasing physical activity if everyone in England had access to good quality green space.8
- In 2017, £1.3 billion in health costs (avoided deaths, fewer respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions) were saved through greenspace’s role in air pollution removal.9
- UK parks and green spaces are thought to generate over £34 billion in wellbeing benefits as a result of people enjoying greater life satisfaction, including both improved physical and mental health, directly as a result of using regularly using parks and green spaces.10
Clearly, there are many benefits to be gained from investing in green solutions. Below are some of the many examples of how policy makers are investing in access and use of natural and green spaces to improve people’s lives:
Health prevention and care: Green social prescribing links people to nature-based interventions and activities, for example, local ‘Walking for Health’ schemes and dementia walks, active travel (such as walking or cycling), local Park Runs, care farming, community gardening and food growing projects, as well as conservation volunteering, green gyms, and arts and cultural activities which take place outdoors. Recently, the government announced £5.77 million will be provided to seven test sites across the UK which will test new ways to embed social prescribing into communities in order to improve mental health outcomes and reduce inequalities, and create best practices in green social prescribing which improves social and emotional development, educational attainment and school attendance.11
Housing: In Copenhagen, the construction of UN17 Village, expected to be completed by 2023, is a sustainable housing development built to improve people’s physical and mental health through their housing. It will house 830 people and consist of five housing blocks made of recycled material. The building complex and individual apartments will include vegetation and green areas, and there will be around 3,000 square-metres of communal spaces for residents and nearby neighbours. The village will aim to produce enough food for 30,000 meals every year by growing crops on the roofs and in the greenhouses.12
Schools: The Forest School model is an approach to learning in which at least once a week, children attend a site at maximum 10-15 minutes from their school to take part in a range of activities from gardening, creative activities and games. There are around 55 Forest School Association recognised primary schools in the UK.13
Urban planning: The Barcelona Superblock model is an innovative urban and transport planning strategy that aims to reclaim public space for people, reduce motorised transport and promotes sustainable mobility and active lifestyles.14 A Superblock consists of several city blocks that reserve space inside for pedestrians and cyclists but limit access for cars. There are now seven districts within Superblocks in Barcelona, and the idea is that no resident will be more than 200m from a green space.15 It is predicted that through the health benefits offered by the Superblock design, almost 700 premature deaths could be prevented annually in the city.16
Smart cities of the future
From growing urbanisation to sustainability, there are important issues to tackle when it comes to smart cities. For example, cities occupy only three percent of the earth but account for up to 80 percent of energy consumption — as well as 75 percent of global waste and carbon emissions. Today there is an increased focus on designing and building innovative ‘Smart Cities of the Future’, to improve citizen’s quality of life, solve crucial urban challenges and contribute towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. A critical part of achieving this goal is the provision of sufficient access to greenspace in urban areas.
Summary and conclusion
Clearly, access to natural and green spaces is not a luxury, it is a resource that should be accessible for all of us to benefit from. The physical environment is one of the key social determinants of our health, and with the upcoming Environment Bill and the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), we have a real opportunity to make a difference to the environment we live in.17 Being closer to nature is linked to a whole range of mental and physical health benefits. By taking a ‘nature in all policies’ approach, and by considering how to increase access to and use of natural and green spaces, policy makers from education, to housing, to urban planning can help prevent poor mental and physical health, as well as ensure a whole range of beneficial outcomes for the public. Importantly, there is a need to prioritise decision-making around communities who are the most underserved when it comes to inequity of access to greenspace.
1 press-release-mental-health-awareness-week-2021.pdf (mentalhealth.org.uk)
2 Why Nature is the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 | Mental Health Foundation