Health Giving Green: What do we know about the health benefits of urban greenspaces?

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One of the strategies to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 11 ‘Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’ is to provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, particularly for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.

This aim has partly come about because of the growing body of evidence, produced over the last two decades, demonstrating how our health benefits from urban greenspaces and green infrastructure. But even our ancient ancestors appreciated this value – our word for paradise stems from the ancient Persian word for enclosed gardens or orchards, while the founding philosophy of the parks movement in the 19th century was strongly associated with health and wellbeing. The Olmsteds in the USA, for example, were concerned with facilitating the free access of the people, arguing that parks should be managed in such a way as to, promote public recreation and public health through the use and enjoyment by the people…of the natural scenery and objects of interest’. I am always surprised with how modern the arguments put forward by these early park pioneers seem; Frederick Law Olmsted wrote that the natural environments ‘operate by unconscious processes to relax and relieve tensions created by the artificial surroundings of urban life’.

More recently, our need to understand the importance of access to greenspaces for our health and wellbeing has become more urgent as we search for ways to deal with the epidemics of non-communicable diseases (e.g. heart and other circulatory diseases, diabetes type 2, and mental health disorders). Whilst many factors are involved in the growth of these conditions, we know that the places in which we live, learn, work and play are important. My team and I at the University of Exeter have been working on clarifying the ways in which greenspaces can contribute for some time, most recently alongside Defra, where we comprehensively reviewed the evidence linking greenspaces to health outcomes. Robust studies from across the world have shown that:

  • Green infrastructure within urban areas provides numerous indirect health related services including reductions to noise, ozone levels, personal exposure to particulates, and mitigation of some of the harmful effects of air pollution, as well as opportunities or direct exposure to nature
  • Living in greener environments (e.g. a greater percentage of natural features around the residence) is associated with reduced mortality.
  • There are numerous positive associations between self-rated health and natural environments.
  • There is relatively strong evidence for mental health and wellbeing benefits arising from exposure to natural environments, including reductions in stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression, together with evidence that these benefits may be most significant for marginalised groups.
  • Socioeconomic inequality in mental well-being narrows among those who report good access to green/recreational areas, compared with those with poorer access.
  • Rates of obesity tend to be lower in populations living in greener environments.
  • Exposure to natural environments has been linked with lower rates of diabetes type II and more favourable heart rate, blood pressure, vitamin D levels, and recuperation rates.
  • Exposure to diverse natural habitats is critical for development of a healthy internal biome, with a potentially causal relationship between exposure to natural environments and the maintenance of a healthy immune system and reduction of inflammatory-based diseases.
  • Greenspaces are associated with and may support higher levels of physical activity in some populations. Studies have found that specific natural environments such as gardens, parks, grassland and farmland, are supportive the intensity of activity necessary for health gain.

A second review for the World Health Organisation on the impacts of improving access, availability and use of urban greenspace that UoE team member Ben Wheeler contributed to underlined the potential gains ‘…urban green space is a necessary component for delivering healthy, sustainable and liveable cities. Interventions to increase or improve urban green space can deliver positive health, social and environmental outcomes for all population groups, particularly among lower socioeconomic status groups. There are very few, if any, other public health interventions that an achieve all of this, and especially the impact on active lifestyles, mental well-being and social interaction…’

Our evidence is useful but I am often asked how it relates to decision making on the ground? Can it be used to weigh up different greenspace provision and management options? This is precisely our challenge with moving forwards with Greenkeeper; to get under the skin of this evidence, to look at how we can reliably translate this evidence so that it is useful to inform current and future urban greenspace provision. No easy task, but possible.

Author: Becca Lovell

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