Can Nature influence health?
Increasing evidence suggests that access to greenspaces like parks, gardens, woods and playing fields, can have health benefits. . They provide opportunities to pursue healthy lifestyles as well as mitigating some of the health risks associated with living in urban environments.
Health benefits of greenspace
Mental health benefits of greenspace include:
- Reduced levels of depression, anxiety and fatigue.
- Mental wellbeing in children, including reduced hyperactivity and inattention and reduced stress[3,4].
Physical health benefits of greenspace include:
- Reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease and a possible reduced risk of death from other causes.
- More favourable heart rates, salivary cortisol levels, high density lipoprotein cholesterol, type 2 diabetes incidence and diastolic blood pressure – with the largest benefit for those with lower socio-economic status.
- Associations between increased exposure to greenspace and more favourable birth weights.
- Reduced length of hospital stays and decreased pain medication intake compared with control patients.
How can greenspace promote positive health outcomes?
1. Physical Activity
Physical inactivity is responsible for 1 in 6 deaths in the UK and costs an estimated £7.4 billion annually. Exercise can help prevent and manage chronic conditions, such as dementia, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Regular exercise may also have a positively impact on mental health conditions, in particular anxiety and depression. Greenspaces create more opportunities for physical activity and skill development which may improve self-esteem, mental and physical health. Some studies suggest that exercise may be more beneficial when conducted in greenspaces compared to indoors.
2. Social Cohesion
Greenspaces can support social cohesion by providing spaces for communities to come together. They can facilitate interaction between people from different backgrounds, reducing isolation, including for the elderly. For example, a Parkrun organiser for Richmond, commented, “The idea of the community has broken down. People don’t go to church any more. But here, you come together with a load of people – and you feel embedded in the local area”.
3. Mitigating environmental health risks
According to Public Health England, 28,000 – 36,000 deaths a year are attributable to long term exposure air pollution. That’s because exposure can increase the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory disease as well as increasing the risk of developing cancer. However, there is increasing evidence that greenspace can reduce air pollution. In 2017, green and blue spaces removed almost 28,000 tonnes of 5 air pollutants in Great Britain, saving an estimated £162.6 million in health costs.
Higher temperatures are more frequent in built-up urban areas than in rural settings. This is due to concentrated areas of asphalt and heat produced from buildings and cars. It’s known as the urban heat island (UHI) effect. These high temperatures can exacerbate cardiovascular, respiratory and mental health problems, leading to increased mortality. There is evidence to suggest greenspaces are able to reduce the UHI effect, producing a ‘park cooling effect’ of 1.5-3.5°C, which may reduce the negative health impacts of high temperatures in urban settings.
Greenspace and health inequalities
The Marmot Review 10 years on found that health inequalities are increasing in England, with health declining in more deprived areas. Economically deprived areas often have less publicly available greenspace and so have reduced access to the potential mental and physical health benefits. However, it has been found that socioeconomic health inequalities are reduced in greener communities. Therefore, increasing the provision of greenspace in socioeconomically deprived areas may help to improve health outcomes and reduce health inequalities.
Given the mental and physical health benefits of access to greenspace and the potential savings to the NHS (currently estimated to be £2.1 billion a year):
1. Existing greenspace in the UK should be protected and new greenspace introduced – where appropriate providing support for local authorities to achieve this.
2. To optimise the health benefits the greenspace should be:
- well designed, safe and well maintained
- capable of encouraging social cohesion and community inclusivity
- able to be used flexibly, to allow for multiple enriched experiences
- able to facilitate and encourage physical activity
3. Companies should consider installing small-scale greenspaces to improve employee mental health, particularly in offices located in urban settings – as a number of innovative companies have already done.
4. When designing and developing greenspace, the risk of ‘green gentrification’ should be avoided, so that long term residents (who may be most vulnerable to health inequalities) are not displaced and can access and benefit from the space available.
To avoid ‘green gentrification’ action should be taken during the planning stages e.g. involving the community, considering existing accessibility data and the population profile of the surrounding community.
Alex Ellicott September 2020