Do Greener Cities Mean Happier, Healthier People?

Written by Anna Shannon

The past year has seen many of us turning to our nearest available outside nature spots. We have become reacquainted with our parks, woods, lakes, and the like. The highlight of any weekend was (and is) a good long walk. The truth of the matter is that some of us are more fortunate than others in terms of accessibility to these greenspaces. This is largely to do with where we live. 12% of residents in Great Britain had no access to a private or shared garden during the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown, according to the Office of National Statistics. That is one in eight households. In London, that figure rises to one in five households having no garden access.

With many not having their own outside space, nearby nature spots become increasingly important. Pre-pandemic, perhaps this may have been less of a concern as our place of work may have had an outside area or a local park nearby. We could also travel much more freely to scenic nature points, having no travel restrictions to think about. Some countries have stricter measures than others. In Ireland for instance, lockdown restrictions are tighter than in England, with a travel ban for residents limiting them to 5 kilometres outside their home. For those now working from home or furloughed, the ‘office’ is a distant memory, so our nature access really hinges on where our home is. In the words of Kirstie and Phil, it really is ‘location, location, location’.

Equal access to nature, much like with garden access, is sadly an assumption, rather than a given. So, how much greenspace is actually available to us? We can use The Green Space Index which is a barometer of publicly accessible park and greenspace provision in Great Britain. It also aims to show the benefits of these nature spaces to communities and is the first of its kind in Great Britain. One of the key findings from the 2020 Index is that there are 2.6 million people who live more than a ten-minute walk to a park or greenspace. They have suggested this is an average of 800 meters. 

Why does this matter? Well, research finds that spending at least 120 minutes per week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. That exposure can help improve our working memory performance, as well as our cognitive flexibility and attentional control too. We can also positively improve our wellbeing by increasing our connection to nature by noticing good things in nature, like a bird soaring or a beautiful sunset for example, suggests the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health

There are numerous studies that support a positive association between nature and our wellbeing and health. Does this mean that if we cannot access ‘nature’ easily, this could have a direct consequence on our health? With all the research highlighting the benefits of nature, it does seem to suggest there may be health disparities between those who are able to easily access greenspaces and those who are less able to do so. We cannot deny that there is likely to be a health advantage to those being able to access greenspaces easily. Could the assumption be made therefore that people are more likely to be healthier the closer they live to accessible greenspaces? As my dad likes to say, there are no easy answers to complex questions so really, the answer (annoyingly) is it depends.

The good news is that there are things that can be done to improve that access. Public Health England (PHE) published a review offering recommendations for local governments and their partners to improve the access to greenspace, which not only offers individual benefits but also for society as a whole. The PHE report quotes (page 12) that £2.1 billion could be saved in health costs if there was good access to greenspace for the residents of England. That sounds great, especially considering the undeniable strain that the NHS faces, which really came to a head in the last twelve months during the pandemic. Clearly, something needs to be done – nice though the Thursday night clapping was. Could it be that creating accessible greenspaces t could help alleviate some of that pressure and improve our general health as a society? The savings of £2.1 billion are probably not as clear cut as simply having ease of access to greenspace, as it will likely have assumed dependencies.  Incorporating greenspaces into cities and urban areas could be a fantastic preventative measure for poorer health, provided they are accessible.

The underlying message of greenspaces being good for us is undeniable and is one that resonates deeply with me. I love being outside, exploring, and seeing the seasons change the landscape. There is so much nature to be enjoyed and discovered, so if you can get to a greenspace, even if it is tricky, the long-term gains are worth it. And hopefully, the pandemic has highlighted the need for nature to be an integral part of our lives.

Featured image courtesy of Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes have been made to this image.

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