POLICY BRIEF: INVESTING IN NATURAL SPACES TO PROMOTE HEALTH AND WELLBEING
Policy Brief: Investing in Natural Spaces to Promote Health and Wellbeing
Green and open spaces are growing in importance in urban centers across the United Kingdom due to their benefits to the population’s health and wellness. The British Heart Foundation reported that over 20 million people in the United Kingdom are physically inactive because they did not achieve the government guidelines for 150 minutes of physical activity per week (BBC 2017). This is critical considering that 80% of the population in the country lived in urban environments, and 50% of those living in England could access green spaces within 300 meters of their residences (Houses of Parliament 2016). This significant population is at risk of mental illnesses, cardiovascular diseases, and other lifestyle diseases, which lower the quality of life and may cause death at chronic and severe levels. However, natural environments have been evidenced to improve the population’s health and wellness because they avail open spaces for recreation and physical activity, and greenery, which helps reduce stress and even narrow health inequalities in mortality. However, such spaces are in short supply in urban built-up areas, thus requiring policy interventions.
The policymaking audience targeted by this policy brief is in Portsmouth in southwest England in the United Kingdom. These policymakers are under Portsmouth City Council’s jurisdiction, comprising 14 wards spanning from Paulsgrove to the north to St Jude in the south. Portsmouth is an island city and the most densely populated local authority area after central London. Consequently, most of its land space is either built up or designated as wetlands, leaving 98% of it as green space (Portsmouth Climate Action 2019). Therefore, the lack of green and open spaces is a grave concern in the City of Portsmouth, especially. Besides, although Southwest England has the second highest physical activity levels in the United Kingdom, over 30% of its population is considered inactive (BBC 2017). In addition, Portsmouth’s population has an aging population that lacks sufficient green and open spaces for active and passive recreation. Most of the land in Portsmouth is privately owned, with the municipality controlling and protecting only 14% of the open spaces. However, while the publicly-controlled space appears minimal, repurposing it to be suitable for human use as active or passive recreational areas is necessary and urgent. Therefore, investing more in natural, green, and open spaces would benefit the residents of Portsmouth because the public spaces available for active and inactive recreation areas would increase and improve their health and wellbeing. However, there lacks a policy at the national level that mandates providing green spaces because the only environmental legislation in the United Kingdom mandates the protection of biodiversity (Houses of Parliament 2016). To this end, this brief will demonstrate the link between the green and open spaces, and the health and wellbeing of city dwellers and, in turn, provide a template that can be used to generate a policy that mandates the local authority to create natural spaces as a public health intervention.
There is no shortage of evidence indicating that natural spaces promote health and wellbeing. The most pertinent evidence that should guide this policy brief is sourced from the United Kingdom, thus making it relevant to the Portsmouth policymakers. This evidence distinguishes two health and wellbeing benefits accrued from natural spaces, physical activity, and mental health wellbeing.
Evidence from the United Kingdom
Specifically, White et al. (2016), Cartwright, White and Clitherow (2018) attend to the beneficial relationship between natural spaces and physical activity, which is known to keep many ailments at bay, and mental health. Specifically, White et al. (2016) investigated the implications of natural environments on population health in England. Their study used the frequency of visits to nature sites to determine whether the visitors had achieved the recommended levels of physical activity recommended by the British government. The findings from the cross-sectional study conducted over 5 years revealed that most of the recreational physical activity undertaken in England was conducted in natural environments, including beaches, parks, and woodlands. The researchers recommended that protecting and managing natural environments in the country was critical for improved health outcomes in the population.
In the same vein, Cartwright, White and Clitherow (2018) provide valuable evidence demonstrating the positive influence of natural spaces on mental health. They explored the interaction between social connectedness and contact with natural environments as facilitators of subjective wellbeing. According to the researchers, social connectedness relates to the interaction between individuals and groups of individuals and the social support that emerges. However, they distinguished between actual and perceived social connectedness by noting that while actual social connectedness was about actual social situations and events, perceived social connectedness related to the subjective feelings and perceptions about an individual’s social experiences. The researchers associated social connectedness with positive psychological outcomes, such as a sense of belonging and companionship, enhanced self-esteem, and a clarified sense of meaning. Similarly, they construed natural environments as the natural settings in which people interact with nature through visits or proximity to their homes, which they measured as nature exposure, measured using the quantity of nature near homes and frequency of visits to natural sites. The researchers explained subjective wellbeing to be the positive emotions experienced by individuals. This study used the United Kingdom setting and surveyed 359 individuals. Consequently, Cartwright, White and Clitherow (2018) concluded that nature exposure and social connectedness influenced mental health and wellbeing such that interacting with nature improved the health wellbeing of individuals and avoided mental health disorders for the socially isolated individuals.
Furthermore, Houses of Parliament (2016) summarized the evidence on the health benefits and adverse effects of having accessible green spaces on public health. Their summary revealed that the residential areas with better access to green spaces enjoyed improved mental and physical health outcomes in their communities. Specifically, residential areas with more greenery experienced lower risks of cardiovascular disease mortality, with evidence indicating that some conditions could be treated by exposure to nature. However, Houses of Parliament (2016) acknowledged that providing green spaces challenged many urban authorities, and the challenges included the difficulty in making green spaces accessible and funding the creation and maintenance of such spaces. On a negative note, Houses of Parliament (2016) revealed that green spaces could have adverse health effects if not managed appropriately. The possible detriments included contracting vector-borne diseases like malaria, European dengue, and lyme disease among others, and allergic reactions due to exposure to allergens. Nonetheless, the evidence advocating green spaces and their health benefits outweighed that which elucidated the negative health effects of exposure to nature. Of concern, Houses of Parliament (2016) decried the reduced public funding for green spaces from the central government and local authorities in the United Kingdom. They also noted that the United Kingdom lacked legislation on green spaces to supplement the existing biodiversity preservation one.
Evidence from Outside the United Kingdom
There are several pieces of evidences sourced beyond the United Kingdom that bolster the evidence sourced from within the country, which is relevant to this policy brief. These sources corroborate what the United Kingdom studies have found, thus supporting the evidence available in the United Kingdom and supporting the urgency of the proposed policy. For instance, Maxwell and Lovell (2017) provide a broad overview of the influence of natural environments of human health by collating several pieces of evidence that they think would be relevant to the United Kingdom, and in turn, Portsmouth. According to Maxwell and Lovell (2017), some links between natural environment and human health are indirect, while others are direct. Regarding the indirect links, they noted that, for instance, water retention in the highlands influenced the health of communities downstream by improving water quality and preventing flooding. Similarly, in an urban setting, greenery can improve health outcomes or prevent ailments in urban communities by reducing pollutants and dust, reducing noise, and improving air quality. Likewise, the direct linkage between the natural environment and human health cited by Maxwell and Lovell (2017) includes the beneficial effects of exposure to natural environments on reducing fatigue, stress, anxiety, and depression. Similarly, the World Health Organization (2016) summarized available evidence indicating that green spaces in urban settings improved health outcomes. The improved health effects included cardiovascular morbidity and mortality, risk of type 2 diabetes, mental health, and pregnancy. The mechanisms with which these benefits were accrued included less exposure to noise, air pollutants, and excessive heat, enhanced physical activity, alleviated stress, and increased relaxation. Dzhambov et al. (2018) investigated the different pathways through which green and blue spaces comprising green vegetation and water bodies, respectively, supported mental health among students in an urban Bulgarian setting. Their study surveyed 720 students in the city of Plovdiv to understand the complex interrelations between green and blue spaces in the city and the students’ mental health. The researchers found that residential green spaces with 300 meters around the students promoted their mental health by enhancing their physical activity and lowering noise pollution, which in turn, lowered annoyance. However, they also revealed that there was no clear association between blue spaces and the students’ mental health.
Engemann et al. (2019) presented interesting findings from a study conducted in a longitudinal study tracking the health of over 900,000 Danish nationals against the green spaces in their urban residences. This study revealed that the residents that had lived in locations with much greenery during childhood had a lower risk of psychological disorders later in life. However, Slater et al. 2020 noted that even the places where green spaces were available and accessible, the covid-19 pandemic has made them inaccessible, which could potentially undo the health benefits they afforded individual and communities. Therefore, they made recommendations that would help open up the green spaces or increase them as the world reopened from the pandemic-induced lockdowns. They advised that in the short term, green space accessibility can be improved by closing off streets with greenery from vehicular traffic so that pedestrians and cyclists could use them instead, which would promote the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, in the long-term, accessibility could be enhanced by municipalities reviewing their plans, design guidelines, and zoning codes by prioritizing greeneries in the neighborhoods that lacked them.
The evidence revealed overwhelmingly that natural environments can promote public health and wellbeing, particularly in urban settings where such environments are scarce due to extensive buildings and infrastructural installations. Specifically, the evidence pointed towards the physical and mental health as the significant benefits accrued from increased interaction with green and blue spaces. Physically, such spaces promoted physical activity, which helped prevent many lifestyle diseases associated with inactivity and sedentary lifestyles. They also provided cleaner environments devoid of noise, pollutants, and excessive heat. Mentally, green and blue spaces lowered the risk of psychological disorders by helping people relax.
Therefore, it is recommended that Portsmouth invests more in natural environments are accessible to the community in the local area under Portsmouth City Council. These investments should be directed towards repurposing and refurbishing open spaces by adding or increasing greenery, planting appropriate vegetation along streets and in neighborhoods that lacked them or had a scarcity. To resolve the funding challenge, Portsmouth city Council would enter in public private partnerships to create more green and blue spaces, considering that most of the land in this locality was privately owned. Such partnerships would avail the funds and spaces needed to increase the green spaces in this highly built-up area. Even then, it is recommended that the municipality encourage Portsmouth residents to venture outdoors and into green and blue spaces because of the health benefits they would accrue. Such awareness campaigns are critical as the country and world open up following the recession of the covid-19 pandemic. In this regard, the public should be informed about the physical and mental health benefits of interacting with nature.
BBC 2017, ‘More than 20 million Britons physically inactive’, https://www.bbc.com/news/health-39457993
Cartwright, BD, White, MP and Clitherow, TJ 2018, ‘Nearby nature ‘buffers’ the effect of low social connectedness on adult subjective wellbeing over the last 7 days’, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 15, no.6, pp.1-20.
Dzhambov, AM, Markevych, I, Hartig, T, Tilov, B, Arabadzhiev, Z, Stoyanov, D, Gatseva, P and Dimitrova, DD 2018, ‘Multiple pathways link urban green-and bluespace to mental health in young adults’, Environmental Research, vol. 166, pp. 223-233.
Engemann, K, Pedersen, CB, Arge, L, Tsirogiannis, C, Mortensen, PB and Svenning, JC 2019, ‘Residential green space in childhood is associated with lower risk of psychiatric disorders from adolescence into adulthood’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 116, no. 11, pp. 5188-5193.
Houses of Parliament 2016, ‘Urban green infrastructure’, Parliamentary Office of Science & technology. https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/POST-PN-0538/POST-PN-0538.pdf
Maxwell, S and Lovell, R 2017, ‘Evidence statement on the links between natural environments and human health’, The European Centre for Environment and Human Health. http://randd.defra.gov.uk
Portsmouth Climate Action 2019, ‘Climate change: The facts’, https://www.portsmouthclimateaction.org.uk/facts
Slater, SJ, Christiana, RW and Gustat, J 2020, ‘Peer Reviewed: Recommendations for keeping parks and green space accessible for mental and physical health during COVID-19 and other pandemics’, Preventing Chronic Disease, vol, 17, pp. 1-5.
White, MP, Elliott, LR, Taylor, T, Wheeler, BW, Spencer, A, Bone, A, Depledge, MH and Fleming, LE 2016, ‘Recreational physical activity in natural environments and implications for health: A population based cross-sectional study in England’, Preventive Medicine, vol. 91, pp. 383-388.
World Health Organization 2016, ‘Urban green spaces and health’, WHO Regional Office for Europe, https://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/321971/Urban-green-spaces-and-health-review-evidence.pdf