Ensuring the value of nature to public health and wellbeing is recognised and valued within the wider health sector.
There is a significant and increasing amount of evidence that the natural environment is good for both our physical and mental health and wellbeing. As importantly the benefits can be more cost effective than traditional methods and have the greatest impact on those that are most disadvantaged.
The challenges lie with enabling health professionals to incorporate this into their advice and programmes. Overcoming this challenge appears to be a twin approach of increased awareness and increased quantification and rigour in the evidence.
The health and the environment sectors are both incredibly varied and so the interactions between them are even more so. Evidence ranges from the classic paper on improved recovery times with simply a view of a greenspace, to those on managing a nature reserve as a way of increasing exercise. Evidence from abroad can differ, those in hotter climates have emphasised the role of water as a key element, while closer to home the experience in Sheffield has demonstrated that it is about beauty not necessarily native or wild plants.
What is clear, however, from the vast amount of literature and project reports on the subject is that people feel better through some kind of engagement with the natural environment. This is both for mental and physical recovery from illness, such as a more interesting environment for physical exercise or a place that allows quiet contemplation. Evidence also suggests that the natural environment has a role in preventing ill health, and thus should play a wider wellbeing role in helping us all stay healthy.
This evidence demonstrates that the greatest impact can be made in areas that are most deprived, as these are typically areas with poor health and reduced access to greenspace. Theoretically, through local improvements to greenspace accessibility and quality, improvements to health will follow as should benefits to social cohesion and overall deprivation. The Natural Estates project has successfully demonstrated this point in practice through a long running community participation project in various areas of London.
Evidence alone does not lead to change, there is a need to ensure this evidence is more widely known and understood so both health and environmental sectors can make best use of it.
Currently environmental and social care charities appear to be leading the way in implementation. Broadening this to enable wider action through health charities, the public health sector and health commissioning is key to enabling much more to be effectively accomplished.
Awareness is not the only hurdle. The variability in the natural environment and human responses to it has made quantification and direct proof of the benefits, in a way that health professionals are familiar with, difficult. Ensuring that monitoring schemes for projects are able to consider this from the outset is important if wide scale changes are to be achieved.
Many health and wellbeing projects involve managing nature reserves or green spaces. While the benefit to these sites will be clear to those working on these projects, there is currently not enough reported evidence of this benefit to meet statistical standards.
More widely, health and wellbeing engagement may help nature in the longer term as it has been demonstrated that engagement with nature leads to care for nature, this is especially true in children. Nature needs people to care for it and champion it if it is to be protected into the future.