There was a long session on natural environments and health at the Royal Geographical Society /IBG conference yesterday. It was put together by Dr Liz Richardson, from CRESH, and it featured an intriguing range of 9 papers. All were exploring the relationships between natural environments and health, but there was great variety in the perspectives, methodologies and opinions on display. The session felt like a nice summary of many current issues and questions in the field.
You can read the abstracts for the papers in the first part of the session here, and the second part of the session here. At the end, I led a discussion which tried to bring together the range of questions and perspectives in the session. Here’s what we talked about.
What can we expect natural environments to do for us? Nina Morris, from Edinburgh University, used the lovely expression ‘mission creep’ in her talk and it prompted us to note that green spaces suddenly seem to be responsible for doing an awful lot. If you believed everything you read, you might think that your local park or forest will cure all ills, make everyone thin, make everyone happy, be a boon to the local economy, prevent climate change and protect rare species. It’s likely that some natural environments can contribute to some of these things, some of the time, but they’re not miracle-workers. Keeping expectations realistic and evidence-based is important.
Several talks began with the assertion that green space is thought to be, (or even known to be) ‘good for health’. There were also anecdotes that, when hearing about plans for or results from research on natural environments and health, some policy makers, journalists (and even research funders) reply “we know that already”. So, we debated, is our job done? Do we now know enough about the relationships between natural environments and health? Can we stop researching it and turn our attention to something else? Perhaps not surprisingly, a room full of researchers disagreed… I do think they had good reason though. Some of the papers really challenged what we thought we knew about whether and how natural environments are related to health. The paper from Katherine Ord, a PhD student at CRESH, for example, strongly questioned the role of physical activity in the relationship between green space and health. Whilst we’re still discovering that we know relatively little about how, when and for whom natural environments matter for human health and wellbeing, there is more work to do. The fact that many people seem now to believe that ‘green space is always good for everyone’, makes the research even more important.
Assuming that there is more work to do, what kind of research is needed? There was much talk about the value of different approaches. Qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods studies were all on display and the range of insights and types of knowledge was a powerful argument for variety in study design and methodology. The epidemiological studies CRESH specialises in are important for learning if and how natural environments contribute to the health and wellbeing of populations, and how they relate to health inequalities. But the insights from qualitative work into how and why individuals use, move within and feel about natural spaces provide crucial depth in understanding. The need to study non-natural environments as part of our research (akin to a control group) was another thread running through the debate. This is vital to be sure that any apparent impacts on health and wellbeing are a function of the natural environment itself and not something else, like just being in a different environment, or a much loved place.
Finally, we discussed the need to understand how we should manage natural environments and our access to them, to maximise their potential benefits. A paper from Michelle Newman at Coventry University, for example, took a critical look at the issues surrounding children’s access to green space in schools. Its exploration of ideas about accessing ‘risky’ environments and who is paying for (and therefore controlling) access to these spaces, prompted wider thoughts about what kinds of spaces to preserve, make accessible or construct. There is a need to ask who has access and who uses their access. Governments and policy makers now explicitly acknowledge the values of green space for health and wellbeing, which is great. Would it be so great if they started to set targets for green space use, or even compel it?
It was a fascinating, useful (and long…) session.