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Green Spaces And Health


“Wash your hands for the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice!”  Yes, an unlooked-for benefit of the coronavirus pandemic is that we all know a lot more now than we used to about how to avoid transmitting highly infectious viruses.  But what about non-communicable diseases, like those described in a recent WHO report[1]?  “Across Europe and beyond, preventable non-communicable diseases, such as mental illness, obesity, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and cancer, remain major factors not only affecting health and well‐being, but also driving up the cost of healthcare and reducing the productivity of the workforce.”

As the report makes clear, there are equally simple, non-medical steps we can take to combat these illnesses too.  In the Carbon Copy webinar Green Recovery: Transform our Communities with Nature, Dr Amir Khan, National Wildlife Trusts Ambassador and a practising GP, points to the many robust scientific studies which have proved that just two hours a week of outdoor activity has many really impressive health benefits.

“To improve mental health,” he says, “even half an hour a week is better than no time in green spaces.  For benefits to physical health, nearer to two hours is more effective.”  It seems that even a window view of trees in hospital has been shown to reduce recovery times by a whole day.

This is the amazing connection between the unique benefit of trees to the planet, taking carbon out of the air, and their gift to us – improving our physical and mental health.  As another webinar panellist, Paul Nolan OBE, Director of The Mersey Forest Project, says: “We want more from tree planting than just sticking them in the ground and walking away.  The forest areas we’re creating help to treat mental and physical health issues like depression and obesity.”

So what is it about green spaces that delivers all these remarkable benefits?  For individuals, according to the WHO report, “mechanisms leading to these health benefits include psychological relaxation and stress alleviation, increased physical activity, reduced exposure to air pollutants, noise and excess heat.”

At a deeper level, it’s about connecting – and reconnecting.  “What people love about trees and green spaces in cities,” says David Elliott, CEO of Trees for Cities, “is what it brings them in terms of culture and aesthetic value – the cultural, spiritual and historical links, how it relates back to their own childhood.”

Then there’s the social interaction which creating, maintaining and enjoying these green spaces generates.  “We’re trying to create a more bottom-up, viral approach,” he suggests, “where we give communities the resources, mechanisms and training, the impetus and momentum, to find and develop their own spaces.”

Cllr Asher Craig, Deputy Mayor of Bristol, likewise emphasises the importance of community engagement: “We’re hopeful that the spirit of community volunteering and kindness that has been shown during the COVID-19 crisis will continue in support of our green projects.”

Dan Merrett manages the Bathscape urban greening initiative for Bath & North East Somerset Council.  He wants to see a greater number and wider range of people feeling connected to the landscape around the city of Bath and inspired to explore it.  He’s certain that partnerships are crucial to success.  “In the current environment, when money’s tight,” he urges, “it’s tempting for local authorities, charities, community groups and schools to focus on our own piece of the jigsaw – but we’re far stronger if we can all join together.”

This sounds remarkably like the amazing mycorrhizal networks that we now know connect trees in the forest, enabling them to support and protect each other.  Forest trees use these underground networks to co-operate, sharing water and nutrients, and to communicate. They send distress signals about drought and disease, for example, or insect attacks, and other trees alter their behaviour when they receive these messages.

We should take a leaf out of their book.

[1] Urban green spaces and health. Copenhagen: WHO Regional Office for Europe, 2016.
This report summarizes the available evidence of beneficial effects of urban green spaces, such as improved mental health, reduced cardiovascular morbidity and mortality, obesity and risk of type 2 diabetes, and improved pregnancy outcomes.

Photo by Clint Adair on Unsplash

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