Well-being and the great outdoors

| April 25, 2018

Our images of holidays and weekends away almost always include scenery, be it beaches or forests, lakes or mountains; even a city holiday will generally involve parks or gardens.

It’s no coincidence that for many of us, our recreation and leisure time will involve contact with nature in some form or another.

Growing evidence suggests that people can derive substantial mental health benefits from being exposed to natural environments. Being close to nature has been shown to be associated with lower levels of stress and also to lessen the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

People who move to greener urban areas have been shown to experience persistent improvements in their mental health.

There are even greater health benefits when the positive impacts of nature are combined with physical exercise.

In one New Zealand study, doctors gave sedentary patients a ‘green prescription’, a written plan recommending a regular walk in the park to improve their health, and found patients increased their physical activity levels significantly.

Similarly, Victoria’s Active in Parks ‘Green Referrals’ program provides a series of eight-week activity programs in local parks for people needing to make healthy lifestyle changes, with the assistance of appropriately accredited fitness providers.

However, not everyone in urban communities has easy access to green spaces. Factors including time, money, distance, access to transport, physical mobility and social restrictions can be real barriers that prevent people from enjoying a breath of fresh air and a walk through the trees.

Green space is a health equity issue

“Green space is an important determinant of health, not just because it enables physical activity but also because it has been shown to promote higher levels of mental wellbeing and social connectedness,” says Dr Annemarie Wright, Principal Project Officer, Knowledge and Health Equity for VicHealth.

“People from socio-economically disadvantaged areas have lower levels of physical activity, not because they don’t know it’s good for them, but because, between the demands of work and the suburbs they can afford to live in, they often have fewer opportunities to engage in physical activity.”

Access to green space is a manifestation of this inequality, she adds. “In Australia, where you live can give you very different levels of access to green space.”

Turning wasteland into green zones

Efforts to improve access to green spaces in urban areas are part of a healthy worldwide trend. Wright notes that the best outcomes are achieved when communities are involved in the process of lobbying for more green space.

In the UK, for example, the 30 Days Wild campaign engaged thousands of British volunteers in a program designed to encourage them to spend more time outdoors. Results show that the campaign led to sustained increases in connection to nature, also bringing associated benefits to happiness, health and pro-nature behaviours.

In the United States, the New York Restoration Project (NYRP) founded by entertainer Bette Midler, has multiple aims: to clean up neglected parks, create community gardens, turn vacant lots into usable space, and provide public access to well-maintained riverside areas.

Starting in 1995 as a grassroots effort that focused its attention on low-income, park-poor neighbourhoods in Brooklyn, NYRP has since combined with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation to create a city-wide program of green space improvement and development.

On the US west coast, the Los Angeles County Healthy Parks, Schools and Communities project has mapped what it calls the ‘hot spots’ marking the ‘park-poor, income-poor communities of color in Los Angeles County’ as the first step in planning its green space improvement strategy.

The nearby city of San Diego has adopted a similar mapping strategy as a basis for planning its priorities in improving access to green space for disadvantaged communities.

In Mexico, a green space creation project, La Línea Verde (the Green Line), resulted in community empowerment in a disadvantaged area. The crowded city of Aguascalientes reclaimed a long sliver of wasteland above an oil pipeline, turning a 12 kilometre stretch of land formerly filled with litter and used by criminals into a narrow linear park with boxing gyms, skate grounds and running pathways. The park is kept green with reclaimed water from a nearby treatment plant and the walkways are lit at night with solar-powered lamps.

Tracking progress in this healthy trend globally, the World Health Organization has produced the Urban Green Space Interventions and Health report, which it describes as ‘an evidence review on the health impacts of urban green spaces’.

Melbourne’s growing green spaces

Melbourne is an active part of this worldwide action to improve community access to green spaces.

The Green Wedges Coalition is a lobby group set up in 1968 to protect the nine green wedges set up as non-urban zones for open space or parkland in Greater Melbourne.

Improving the condition of informal green spaces can encourage people to use them and can improve the liveability of neighbourhoods.

Melbourne’s Greening the West program includes a restoration project at Upper Stony Creek, an urban waterway in Melbourne’s west, where work will soon transform a concrete drainage channel into an accessible urban wetland and park. One of the researchers on this project, social scientist Dr Cecily Maller from RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research, studies interactions between people and urban environments.

As our cities become more crowded, land values surge and space is at a premium, but Maller says there are many opportunities for us to find ‘informal green space’.

Part of making our urban environment healthier could involve identifying neglected urban spaces that can be turned from wasteland into recreational land. “Improving the condition of those informal green spaces can encourage people to use them and can improve the liveability of neighbourhoods,” she says.

“Western Melbourne has much lower levels of tree cover and greenery than other parts of the city, making it prone to the urban heat island effect, which has a detrimental impact on people’s health and wellbeing in terms of keeping cool,” Maller explains.

Urban heat islands can also increase the use of air-conditioners, leading to higher energy costs. “The design of cities also impacts biodiversity, air quality and human health and wellbeing,” says Maller.

The Greening the West project will examine ways to improve both biodiversity and human health and wellbeing.

Maller, with her colleagues at RMIT have also done a social science survey, interviewing residents to find out more about how they currently use – and feel about – the Upper Stony Creek waterway and the adjacent informal green space.

 “The creek corridor itself has been fenced off and concreted, but that hasn’t stopped people using it,” she says. The survey revealed that, while there were misgivings about safety standards and crime in the area, the local community appreciated the informality of the space.

These insights led Maller and her colleagues to consider that smaller interventions aimed at resolving the immediate safety and maintenance concerns might be more valuable to the community than a full-scale formalisation of the green space.

 “The whole way we think about greening and parks in neighbourhoods has changed in recent years,” she says. Now people are looking to a diverse range of ways to make neighbourhoods greener, from street planting to having temporary pop-up parks to restoring, revegetating and regenerating areas like old drainage lines.”

With increasing density, there has been a renewed interest in looking at leftover spaces and using them.

“The whole way we think about greening and parks in neighbourhoods has changed in recent years and now people are looking to a diverse range of ways to make neighbourhoods greener, from street planting to having temporary pop-up parks to restoring, revegetating and regenerating areas like old drainage lines.”

Maller says that the movement towards introducing nature into cities was influenced by a 1984 book by American biologist Edward O Wilson, Biophilia, which argued that humans are genetically predisposed to respond to green environments and animals and plants, and that exposure to these is beneficial to our health, wellbeing and happiness. These ideas have launched a global movement for biophilic cities.

“Singapore is a leading example of a biophilic city-state, which refers to sustainable communities that use creative strategies to help cities and towns reduce their ecological footprints, while becoming more liveable and equitable places,” says Maller.

Overcoming obstacles

In Australia, obstacles to green space access include the fast-reducing affordability of homes in the three major capitals.

Particularly now, when we see so many kids spending much of their life indoors in front of screens, it’s really important for their development to spend time outdoors being active.

“Most of the affordable housing is on the edges of cities which are not necessarily established in terms of facilities like parks, and they usually are not where the jobs are,” Maller says.

“One of the flipsides of equity greening projects is that they can have an adverse outcome if they lead to gentrified areas that can potentially push out low-income families.”

VicHealth Manager of Physical Activity, Sport and Healthy Eating, Rayoni Nelson, agrees that green space is an important part of health and physical activity.

“Particularly now, when we see so many kids spending much of their life indoors in front of screens, it’s really important for their development to spend time outdoors being active.”

Nelson says it’s important that people have access to a range of different types of green space.

Making green space fit for purpose

As Maller observes, a creative approach makes it possible to craft valuable green space in some unlikely corners. But it’s important to note that, to have genuine, long-lasting benefits in terms of physical and mental wellbeing, green spaces must meet the needs of the surrounding community.

“We need to consider the purpose of green spaces and make sure they’re open to a variety of purposes, build in a range of uses for a community such as a dog park, a children’s playground, maybe a skate park, an outdoor exercise area and walking track,” says Nelson. “That can broaden the reach and improve engagement of the community.”

RMIT’s Professor Billie Giles-Corti and her team have a focus on developing a more nuanced understanding of urban design and planning, and the health outcomes they generate.

Last year she was involved in the publication of Quality Green Space Supporting Health, Wellbeing and Biodiversity: A Literature Review. That work confirmed that green spaces have a positive impact on mental health, that they are particularly beneficial for people living in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas, and that they are inequitably distributed across Australian capital cities.

It also noted some of the factors that impacted on the capacity of green space to deliver meaningful benefits. For example, in hot environments, green space that provided shading and cooling was much more likely to be used and enjoyed by the local community.

In areas where certain cultural groups are more dominant, it could be that green space is more valuable when it provides opportunities for ‘passive’ rather than ‘active’ recreation. And it’s possible that ‘serene’ green spaces provide greater mental health benefits to women than to men.

Research is ongoing, but the key lesson is that green spaces must be fit for purpose. The report’s authors observe that applying one-size-fits-all standards, such as providing a certain amount of green space per resident, are unlikely to produce the desired outcomes.

“Design and development of green space needs to be developed with an understanding of how different green spaces are needed to achieve different types of health and environmental benefits at specific geographical scales across cities,” the report concludes. “One type of green space cannot meet all possible health and biodiversity benefits and different designs across multiple geographies will produce the greatest positive impact.”

This article was published by Vic Health.