Posted: 20 May. 2021 10 min. read

Increasing access to nature is important for mental health

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:

  • If everyone in England had access to good quality greenspace, the National Health Service (NHS) could save an estimated £2.1 billion a year (nearly $3 billion US) through increased physical activity.8
  • In 2017, £1.3 billion ($1.8 billion) in health costs (e.g., through avoided deaths, and fewer respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions) were reduced by the impact greenspaces have on air pollution removal.9
  • UK parks and greenspaces are thought to generate more than £34 billion ($48 billion) in well-being benefits as a result of people enjoying greater life satisfaction, including both improved physical and mental health.10

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:

  • Health prevention and care: Prescribing social time in green spaces links people to nature-based interventions and activities. Examples include local Walking for Health schemes and dementia walks, active travel (such as walking or cycling), local park runs, community gardening and food-growing projects, as well as conservation volunteering, green gyms, and arts and cultural activities that take place outdoors. Recently, the government announced £5.77 million will be provided to seven test sites across the UK. These sites will be used to test new ways to embed social prescribing into communities to improve mental health outcomes, reduce inequalities, and create best practices in green social prescribing, which can improve social and emotional development, educational attainment, and school attendance.11
  • Housing: In Copenhagen, the construction of the UN17 Village (expected to be completed by 2023) is a sustainable-housing development built to improve people’s physical and mental health through their housing. The Village will house 830 people and consist of five housing blocks made of recycled material. The building complex and individual apartments will include vegetation and green areas. There will also be about 3,000 square-meters of communal spaces for residents and neighbors. It is expected that roof-top gardens and greenhouses will grow enough food for 30,000 meals every year.12
  • Schools: The Forest School model is an approach to learning. At least once a week, children attend a site (up to 10-15 minutes) away from their school to take part in a range of activities that include gardening, creative activities, and games. There are about 55 Forest School Association-recognized primary schools in the UK.13
  • Urban planning: The Barcelona Superblock model is an innovative urban and transport planning strategy that aims to reclaim public space for people, reduce motorized transport, and promote sustainable mobility and active lifestyles.14 A Superblock consists of several city blocks that reserve space inside for pedestrians and cyclists but limit access to cars. There are now seven districts within Superblocks in Barcelona. The idea is that no resident will be more than 200 meters from a greenspace.15 Through the health benefits offered by the Superblock design, it is estimated that nearly 700 premature deaths could be prevented annually in the city.16

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.

Endnotes

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

3 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/904439

/Improving_access_to_greenspace_2020_review.pdf

4 http://www.fieldsintrust.org/Upload/file/research/Revaluing-Parks-and-Green-Spaces-Report.pdf

5 https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html

6 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5708071/

7 https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/environmentalaccounts/articles/oneineightbritishhouseholdshasnogarden/2020-05-14

8 https://deframedia.blog.gov.uk/2020/09/08/environment-agency-releases-new-state-of-the-environment-report/#:~:text=Sir%20James%20Bevan%20said%3A&text=It%20makes%20economic%20sense%2C%20because,to%20good%20quality%20green%20space

9 https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/environmentalaccounts/bulletins/uknaturalcapitalaccounts/2019

10 http://www.fieldsintrust.org/Upload/file/research/Revaluing-Parks-and-Green-Spaces-Report.pdf

11 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/green-social-prescribing-call-for-expressions-of-interest/green-social-prescribing-call-for-expressions-of-interest

12 https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/skys-limit-architects-design-un17-eco-village-copenhagen

13 https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html

14 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019315223

15 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-54920342

16 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019315223

17 https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/determinants-of-health

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