Increasing Access to Nature is Important for Mental Health | Deloitte US has been saved
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By Krissie Ferris, research analyst, Deloitte UK Centre for Health Solutions
In the United Kingdom, the first week in May is Mental Health Awareness Week. (In the US, May is Mental Health Awareness Month.) This year’s theme is Nature and how connecting with the natural world can support good mental health.1 During the pandemic, millions of people turned to nature to help them get through lockdowns, according to research by the Mental Health Foundation. Their findings demonstrate that connecting with nature and can aid recovery from poor mental health. Going for walks outside was one of the top coping strategies used during lockdowns, and 45% of survey respondents said being in greenspaces has been vital for maintaining mental health.2 However, the pandemic helped highlight huge disparities in access to natural spaces, especially among people who live in urban areas, as well as those with lower incomes.
Why the natural environment is so important to our health and well-being
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. Public Health England recognizes that spending time in greenspace is associated with a range of health-related benefits, from reduced stress to improved quality of life (including improvements in skills and development among children).3 In 2010, Sir Michael Marmot’s Review into health inequalities recommended that increasing the availability of good quality greenspaces would help reduce health inequalities. Yet, despite wide recognition of the value of greenspace, quality and access to public greenspace has declined.4
Today, more than half (55%) of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and that percentage is expected to rise to nearly 70% by 2040.5 Moreover, 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% compared with 10%).7
The benefits of investing in green solutions
Increasing access, use, and availability of greenspace can deliver a significant return on investment in health and in savings related to well-being. For example:
Clearly, there are many benefits to be gained from investing in green solutions. Below are a few examples of how policy makers are investing in access and the use of natural and greenspaces to improve people’s lives:
Smart cities of the future
From growing urbanization to sustainability, there are important issues to tackle when it comes to smart cities. For example, cities occupy only 3% of the earth but account for up to 80% of energy consumption. Cities also generate 75% of global waste and carbon emissions. Today there is an increased focus on designing and building innovative Smart Cities of the Future to improve the quality of life, solve crucial urban challenges, and contribute toward 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.
Access to natural and greenspaces is not a luxury, it is a resource that should be accessible to all of us. The physical environment is one of the key social determinants of our health, and with the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), we have a real opportunity to make a difference to the environment in which we live.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 greenspaces—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 prioritize decision-making around communities that 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