Why Places Matter for our Wellbeing

The following post is an interview with Professor Jamie Pearce and Professor Sarah Curtis about how our surroundings affect our health. It was originally posted in April 2017 in the build up to the Edinburgh Science Festival.

What might the audience expert to learn from this event?

While there are many things we can do as individuals to improve our health and wellbeing, action to create a healthier environment also requires community, societal and political responses. We will report on research that explores how and why the places where we live, work and play affect our mental health, and, with the help of the audience, identify some likely ways to make our environment healthier.

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People might expect that being in pleasant surroundings can lift our moods, but please can you briefly outline how your research goes beyond this?

We know from lots of research over many years that the places in which we live, work and play can be both beneficial and detrimental to our health and mental wellbeing. Our research has shown that ‘therapeutic’ properties of places include high levels of community cohesion, availability and accessibility of high quality green spaces, and investment in infrastructure to support physical activity, such as cycle paths.

On the other hand, places can be damaging to our mental health if, for example, they are characterised by high levels of crime, pollution, poor physical conditions and a lack of secure and rewarding employment opportunities. Our research also explores how different groups vary in their response to their environment. For instance, the mental health benefits of living in a greener environment are greater for those who are relatively poor, as compared with for wealthier groups. This finding is important, since the Scottish Government and other policymakers need to know what works in terms of environmental planning to reduce health inequalities.

Why is now a good time to highlight the findings of your work?

Like many other countries, mental health in Scotland is a major public health challenge. We know that many mental health outcomes are significantly poorer in Scotland than they are in England. It is estimated that around one in three people are affected by mental illness in any one year. People in the most socially disadvantaged communities are disproportionately affected. For example, our work has shown that adults living in the most deprived parts of Scotland are almost three times as likely to have common mental health problems as those in the least deprived areas.

It is no wonder that improving mental health is a priority for the Scottish Government and is one of 55 national indicators chosen to chart the country’s progress towards the achievement of our National Outcomes – wellbeing targets set by the Scottish Government.

Can you give one or two examples of how people might make simple changes to their surroundings to improve their wellbeing?

Our research has shown very clearly that so much to do with our health is outside of our personal control. To make substantial improvements to our health – including mental wellbeing – requires us to think and act collectively. As individuals, we can get involved in helping to make the places we live more supportive for mental health and wellbeing through getting involved in community initiatives, making therapeutic spaces more accessible, and ensuring our workplaces are supportive.

Can you highlight one or two outcomes from your research that have surprised you?

One of the most fascinating findings from our recent research is that the circumstances early in our lives can have lasting lifelong implications. For example, we have found that characteristics of the places we live during our childhood years can affect mental health and cognitive ageing much later in life. These findings change the way in which we think about the relationships between places and health; to date we have probably not appreciated quite how important places are for our health over our whole lives. It also means that changes we make to our environment now to make places better for mental health are likely to benefit the next generation as well as ourselves.

What is your motivation for bringing your research to the Science Festival?

We think that improving mental health is a major challenge for Scotland and other countries in the UK. To make substantial and sustained progress will require some joined-up thinking, which recognises that mental health is influenced by a range of social, political and environmental factors in our communities. Having conversations about these issues, and identifying possible solutions to such important challenges, is an important way of helping to make sure that important research findings are acted on.

To Understand Place, Sometimes You Need to Go Places

By Jon Olsen

I recently spent a week as a visiting postdoctoral researcher at the Built Environment and Health (BEH) research group at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.

My visit was funded by the University of Glasgow’s Principal’s Early Career Mobility Scheme, a scheme which aims to give the opportunity for postdoctoral researchers to visit international institutions, providing the time and space to develop high-impact collaboration with staff there.

I organised the visit and developed a proposal on how I would spend my time at Columbia with Kathryn Neckerman, a senior research scientist at the Columbia Population Research Centre and co-director of BEH. Now I am back, it’s time to reflect.

Why is international research collaboration important?

Improving population health and well-being is a focus of Governments and health organisations globally and, while there is continued focus and resource, poor health and inequalities remain. This is partly because improving health and well-being, and reducing inequalities is complex and requires complex solutions. Professor David Hunter in an article in the Journal of Public Health describes improving health and well-being as a ‘wicked problem’. A ‘Wicked’ issue in the sense these problems “defy easy or single bullet solutions” and “have complex causes and require complex solutions”. Collaboration is vital to bring together ideas and resources to tackle complex problems.

An article on international research collaboration in Elsevier connect, following the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit in Melbourne in 2015, stated that “researchers collaborate to share their knowledge and combine the perspectives they have to solve complex problems that are increasingly cross-disciplinary in nature”. It argued that international collaboration provides many benefits, including “enabling researchers in institutions to access resources beyond their own, especially funding, talent and equipment”.

Furthermore, the article suggested that regional universities could collaborate when research is centred on a common regional challenge. However, there are further opportunities for international collaboration and learning, such as where research themes and methodologies are overlapping. All this potential was in mind as I travelled to Columbia University and I was able to explore this through my visit to BEH. For me, the question was how could the similarities that exist in Neighbourhood and Health research themes in Glasgow and in New York benefit research and help further understand complex problems.

Neighbourhood and Health research themes in Glasgow and New York

The BEH research group has an interdisciplinary programme of research which uses spatial data to examine the impact of the built environment (including land use, public transit, and housing) on physical activity, diet, obesity, and other aspects of health. The group’s research themes have many parallels to ours in the Neighbourhoods and Communities Programme at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit (SPHSU), University of Glasgow, and at the Centre for Research on the Environment, Society and Health (CRESH). We all seek to understand how neighbourhood environments impact upon health outcomes and health inequalities.

For example, researchers at SPHSU and CRESH have recently described an association between alcohol and tobacco outlet density across Scotland and area level deprivation such that the poorest neighbourhoods had the highest densities of outlet. However, this is a complex issue as highlighted by a Glasgow based study conducted at SPHSU, ‘The socio-spatial distribution of alcohol outlets in Glasgow city’, which did not find the same association. My colleague Laura Macdonald’s recent paper described that perceptions of being well-placed for amenities and the presence of amenities in the local neighbourhood were not necessarily correlated.

In New York, BEH group have recently developed a tool that allows the automated auditing of neighbourhood environments using Google Street View. This project developed a system called the ‘Computer Assisted Neighborhood Visual Assessment System’ (CANVAS), to conduct Street View based audits of neighbourhoods. The software developed can be used for neighbourhood audits conducted at a desktop computer for a much lower cost than sending out trained auditors to survey the neighbourhood.

CANVAS creates opportunities a richer understanding of neighbourhood environments than using only the geographical location of amenities or outlets. This could include an understanding of visual stimuli in the neighbourhood on individual behavioural choices, such as advertising of health/fast foods, whether amenities and outlets are visible to individuals travelling along streets, and changes in this over time. Approaches like CANVAS could bring advances in our field which often currently assumes that proximity to facilities is the primary mediator in access. As our research has shown, perception and presence of amenities are not necessarily correlated.

Our programme has recently completed data collection for the Studying Physical Activity in Children’s Environments across Scotland (SPACES) study. The SPACES study is the first national representative study in Scotland to collect both Global Positioning System (GPS) and accelerometer (i.e. movement) data of over 800 children, 10-11 years old. Indeed, a study I am currently leading utilises the SPACES dataset to describe children’s patterns of movement within the landscape and how this may be affected by the surrounding neighbourhoods in terms of its makeup, size, shape and proximity to each other. Paul McCrorie and colleagues’ review the use of such devices to explore the physical activity and environment relationship in children and young people highlighted that describing people’s movement in time and space is a field which is advancing rapidly, driven by the advancements in wearable technologies that collect GPS data. But this also means that it’s imperative we understand and develop the methodological options for analysing the gathered data to ensure robust and generalizable conclusions.

The Potential of Collaboration

Spending time with BEH, I could more readily see that the two programmes share a clear focus to establish a grounded and robust methodological framework for describing patterns of movement and environmental exposures in neighbourhoods.

It was this first-hand opportunity to share learning both from the analysis of our studies and our approaches which can, I believe, lead to better collaboration. Modern technology is great for communication, but direct dialogue and the time and space to be with potential colleagues in their environment can perhaps offer richer experience than a scheduled video-conference or a meeting of minds at a conference, (valuable as those are).

For example, last year the BEH group published a study using GPS data to study neighborhood walkability and physical activity’ in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. This measured the size and characteristics of residential neighbourhood areas utilised, and those not utilised, by people in New York City. I was able to discuss this with the lead author, Andrew Rundle, who is also co-director of BEH, during my visit and the strengths and limitations of different geospatial analytical and statistical techniques for neighbourhood GPS studies, which I also picked up with Stephen Mooney while I was there.

I am now continuing to explore ideas around methodological development and carrying on these discussions. International travel schemes are invaluable. It is important to step outside of your own research group to gain a wider academic perspective of world-leading research. Although my visit to BEH was not about collaboraton in the sense of producing a research paper or grant, it allowed us to share practice, knowledge and ideas.

Of course, embracing an international spirit also means following the ‘when in Rome’ philosophy, so before I left, as a keen runner, I also made time to tread some miles amongst the amazing New York scenery. And as a geographer interested in spatial epidemiology, and like other geographers, I track all my runs using GPS! I have included the routes for those who might want to check them out: Two Bridges, Lower Manhattan to Battery Park, and a foggy 5k across the Manhattan Bridge.

 

 

Being a Scout or Guide protects mental health and narrows inequalities in later life

By Rich Mitchell and Chris Dibben

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Today, with colleagues from the Longitudinal Studies Centre Scotland at Edinburgh University, we have published a study
which found that being in the Guides or Scouts as a child seems to protect your mental health long into adulthood. Those who were in the Guides or Scouts were about 18% less likely to have a mood or anxiety disorder at age 50, than those who were not. This protective link seems especially strong for children who grew up in less advantaged households, so much so that the usual ‘gap’ in mental health between those from richer and poorer backgrounds does not exist among those who were Scouts or Guides. Continue reading Being a Scout or Guide protects mental health and narrows inequalities in later life

Call for papers – Health & place across the life course – AAG, Boston, April 2017

We’re organising a session entitled Health and Place Across the Life Course at the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting in Boston, MA, April 5-9 2016. If you’re interested in contributing a paper then please get in touch. Further details here:

Session title: Health and place across the life course
Session organisers: Niamh K Shortt and Jamie Pearce, Centre for Research on Environment, Society & Health, University of Edinburgh.

Life course research has been instrumental in establishing that social, economic and cultural factors can influence health in later life either through, for example, an accumulation of effects or through critical periods.  There has however been little work by health geographers that has considered how factors that are rooted in place accumulate to influence health and wellbeing through the life course. Reasons for this may include the lack of readily available historical environmental data and the challenges that their collection pose. The absence of such research is problematic because it is likely to restrict our understanding of the ways in which places matter for health, including: the accumulative effects of place over the life course; the critical periods in people?s lives when places are particularly pertinent for health and wellbeing; and, for quantitative work, identifying causal relationships.

This session calls for research papers that incorporate environmental and/or social life course perspectives in order to answer these critical questions.  We welcome both empirical (quantitative or qualitative) and theoretical papers. We particularly welcome papers that consider the challenges of merging historical and contemporary data in health and place research.  Abstracts (maximum of 250 words) should be submitted to Niamh Shortt niamh.shortt@ed.ac.uk  by September 30th 2016.

All accepted participants will be required to register and submit your abstract to the AAG following the AAG guidelines http://www.aag.org/cs/annualmeeting/register and to send your PIN number to niamh.shortt@ed.ac.uk  by October 27, 2016.

Loneliness is an issue of inequality

By Claire Niedzwiedz

Loneliness is increasingly being prioritised as a public health issue, due to its strong links to illness and premature mortality.  Our new article published in Preventive Medicine (open access version here) highlights that older people’s loneliness varies according to their level of wealth: those with the least experience more loneliness than the wealthiest. We found that taking part in formal social activities, such as attending a sport or social club, may help to reduce the gap in loneliness between the poorest and richest older people, especially among men. But wealthier people are on the whole more likely to participate in such activities.

Continue reading Loneliness is an issue of inequality

Is it time to reconsider the impact agenda?

By Niamh K Shortt

In our latest paper published in Social Science and Medicine we critique the way ‘impact’ is measured within the UK’s Research Excellence Framework* (REF) and in doing so we propose an alternative measurement, one based on enlightenment and process rather than outcomes.

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Source: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Water_drop_impact_on_a_water-surface.jpg

 

Continue reading Is it time to reconsider the impact agenda?

The impact of a motorway extension in Glasgow on road traffic accidents

Funded by the NIHR PHR Programme

A new study published by Dr Jon Olsen at CRESH and colleagues at CEDAR in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health evaluated the impact of the 5-mile M74 motorway extension on road accidents that resulted in a casualty. The study found that it had no impact on the already decreasing trend of road accidents in the area. Continue reading The impact of a motorway extension in Glasgow on road traffic accidents