Going Green for Better Health

How do you feel when you spend time outdoors? Relaxed, happy, calm, energised, peaceful? While not universally true for everyone, on balance most people associate these positive feelings withspending time in green space, far more than any negativity.

Getting out and about in nature can help to counteract the impact of the busy, stressful lives people now lead. In 2018, research found that nearly 75 per cent of people in the UK have at some point felt so stressed they’ve been overwhelmed or unable to cope with everything happening in their life.

Dr Mathew White is an environmental psychologist at the European Centre for Environment & Human Health (ECEHH), part of the University of Exeter Medical School. He recently led research that found spending two hours per week in nature, whether that is on the beach, in a woodland or an inner city park, gives a positive boost to both mental and physical health and wellbeing.

The study used data from nearly 20,000 people in England and found that it didn’t matter whether the two hours was made up of a single visit or took place over several shorter visits. Researchers were also surprised at how consistent the findings were across all the demographic groups they looked at.

Mathew said: “We studied young and old, male, female, urban and rural dwellers, those in deprived versus rich neighbourhoods, but perhaps most importantly, those with long-standing illnesses or disabilities. We were worried our effect was just that healthier people visited nature but this finding suggested that even people with long-term health conditions also seem to benefit from a 120 minute a week ‘dose’.

“Spending time in natural environments can decrease heart rate, blood pressure, the stress hormone cortisol, and generally improve psychological wellbeing. Partly it encourages more exercise, but also modern living places so many cognitive demands on us, getting out and about is downtime for our brain, giving us the chance to have space to think.

“The type of natural environment does make a difference. We’ve plenty of previous evidence to suggest that the marine environment as well as uplands and mountains are the best, but with this data most people are going to urban parks and it’s still working, even if this is just sitting on a park bench or having a picnic.”

Knowing we need to spend more time in nature is all very well, but the quality of and access to green space can vary greatly, meaning that not all can feel its benefits. The Green Space Index from the charity Fields in Trust found that more than 2.5 million people in Great Britain live more than a 10-minute walk from the nearest area.

Mathew said: “There is significant inequality when it comes to the environment. People from poorer areas generally have worse access to nature and often deal with greater environmental pollution. However, while improving neighbourhood environments can benefit health and wellbeing, it can also lead to another problem. That of ‘green gentrification’. This is where improvements to green spaces ultimately push property prices up to a point where the area becomes too expensive for the residents to stay.”

This issue has led to so-called ‘green LULUs’ – Locally Unwanted Land Uses – where communities actively rally against greening projects in their area because of the potential impact. To be sustainable and benefit local populations, green developments need to find a balance between investment and local needs.

Dr Rebecca Lovell, a lecturer at the ECEHH, has been working on an Innovate UK funded collaborative project called Greenkeeper. The project partners are creating an online valuation tool that will measure the benefits of green

infrastructure developments and test the impact of change.

She said: “Greenkeeper is a data driven tool which allows users to assess performance of green spaces, to identify opportunities and compare the impact of interventions. Land owners and planners will be able to use it to understand how spaces are used, their contributions to urban life and socio-economic value.

“It will provide a space-specific account of the benefits of urban green spaces. For example translating visitor numbers to green space into a health and wellbeing value for the community and indicating potential savings for the NHS and social care system. It also allows the comparison of

different options, for example indicating whether creating several small spaces or one large area would provide greater health gains. With this data local planners will be able to weigh up the additional value created through green space provision in new developments”.

The project also allows house builders to consider green implications when constructing new developments – seeking the optimum balance between housing and outside space, public and private areas.

The studies have shown that, for the good of our mental and physical health, it’s important that we increase people’s opportunities to spend time in nature. To facilitate this, it’s important for planners and local governments to consider the multiple values of green space when redeveloping areas or constructing new developments. However, we need to ensure that efforts to improve people’s health and wellbeing don’t fail by ultimately forcing residents out of neighbourhoods through mis-directed efforts to improve our environments.