Category Archives: Natural Environments

Is multiple environmental deprivation related to population health in Portugal?

By Ana Isabel Ribeiro

In our recently published paper (open access version here) we describe the development of a multivariate measure of physical environmental deprivation for the 278 municipalities of Portugal, and demonstrate its strong relationship with mortality rates. Continue reading Is multiple environmental deprivation related to population health in Portugal?

New MRC funded PhD studentship available, looking at our environment, our biology and healthy ageing

We have an exciting opportunity for a fully funded PhD place at the University of Glasgow. The project will join health geography / epidemiology, environmental science and cell biology. The project will be supervised by Profs Rich MitchellPaul Shiels and Ewan Macdonald. The funding comes from the MRC. The financial package will include a 3.5-year stipend, approved University of Glasgow fees, Research Training Support Grant (RTSG) and a conference allowance. Continue reading New MRC funded PhD studentship available, looking at our environment, our biology and healthy ageing

CRESH research on children and the outdoors mentioned in House of Lords debate

Research by Rich Mitchell was mentioned in a House of Lords debate on 16 May. The debate centred on the contribution of outdoor activities to the United Kingdom economy and to the health and well-being of the population. The research cited was completed  in 2009. Rich Mitchell and Rebecca Shaw followed a group of children (average age 13) undertaking an outdoor education scheme; the John Muir Award. The children completed questionnaires before, during and then 18 months after, their Award experience. The study showed massive inequalities in experience of outdoor environments. Children living in the poorest circumstances were over 6 times more likely to have had no prior experience of wild places than their more affluent peers. The study showed that participation in the Award increased aspirations for visiting the outdoors, particularly among the most deprived children, but it did not affect actual visiting behaviour.
You can find out more about the John Muir Award here
There is a summary of the research here
The full report is here

Greenwash: have the benefits of green space been exaggerated?

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Greenwash” is sometimes used to describe exaggerated or otherwise misleading claims made about a product or company’s environmental benefits.  People are understandably becoming more and more cynical about environmental friendliness claims – but the danger is that genuine environmental benefits are rejected along with the greenwash, which “threatens the whole business rationale for becoming more environmentally friendly” (Futerra 2008). 

I am concerned that the green space and health research agenda is at risk of being overtaken by a form of greenwash, as ironic as that may sound.  Green spaces – also known as natural/vegetated/open spaces – clearly have some social, environmental and economic benefits.  The research of CRESH and many other groups has demonstrated this.  But these benefits are not experienced everywhere, or by everyone.  The same wooded park may be a valued jogging or walking area for some people, but a terrifying no-go area for others.  There is much important research to be done to understand and address the barriers that prevent different groups benefitting from green spaces.  CRESH researchers are among many jointly trying to bridge this knowledge gap.

The greenwash that concerns me is the mantra that ‘green space is good’ – end of story.  At a recent GreenHealth Conference (11th March 2013, Edinburgh) the fascinating results from a four-year Scottish Government funded research programme were presented.  CRESH’s own Rich Mitchell presented on the topic “More green = better health?” and concluded that this is not always the case (see blog post).  Nonetheless, in one of the afternoon discussions one attendee called for less research and more action “because we know green space is good already”.  Additionally, some important Greenspace Scotland work – showing that investment in ten community green space projects across Scotland provides good social, environmental and economic value for money – has been misleadingly reported elsewhere as “Greenspace is good… fact!”  This is greenwash.  It is also an example of a factoid – an assumption or speculation that is reported and repeated until it is considered true (see Cummins and Macintyre’s 2002 paper on how “food deserts” made it into UK policy by such a pathway).  Policy-making based on assumptions is dangerous: Cummins and Macintyre urge policy makers to look at the facts more critically.

Jane Jacobs – the influential American writer on urban planning – wrote about the greenwash surrounding green spaces (or ‘grass fetishes’ as she called it) more than 50 years ago.  In The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961, Random House, NY) she wrote that “In orthodox city planning, neighbourhood open spaces are venerated in an amazingly uncritical fashion…” (p.90).  She qualifies that, while ”parks can and do add great attraction to neighbourhoods that people find attractive for a great variety of other uses”, they may also “exaggerate the dullness, the danger, the emptiness” (p.111).  If the barriers to green space use are not identified and addressed local people cannot be expected to use and benefit from them, regardless of the intentions of well-meaning city planners.  Informing people that ‘green space is good’ won’t help.  The danger is that when their touted benefits don’t materialise, green spaces may fall out of favour, when in truth, and with greater attention to what the evidence tells us, they may have been a great public health resource.  Instead of less research we urgently need to strengthen the evidence base and publicise our findings more widely.  Watch this space.

Author: Liz Richardson

Greener urban areas in Scotland are not healthier

Studies from around the world have looked for links between how much green space a neighbourhood has and the health of the resident population. We expect to find this link because evidence from experimental studies in the laboratory and field suggests that being in natural environments may reduce stress, enable recovery from fatigue, lower blood pressure and promote healing. Green spaces may also encourage physical activity, and social contact. However, not all studies find a link between green space and health; the relationship seems to vary by country, gender, socio-economic position and, importantly, by the measure of health used.

Until recently there had been very little work looking at the relationships between green space and health in Scotland specifically. On March 11th, results of the GreenHealth programme are being launched at a conference in Edinburgh. CRESH was part of GreenHealth, together with colleagues from several other institutions in Scotland including The James Hutton Institute and our friends at the OPENspace Research Centre. In this blog I am going to tell you about some of the results from our part of the work.

A key part of our work was to look at the link between how much green space a neighbourhood has, and its rates of mortality and morbidity. The graph below is typical of the results we found.

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The graph shows the relationship between the amount of green space in urban neighbourhoods in Scotland, and the risk of mortality for working age men. The risk is shown relative to urban areas with the least amount of green space, and the further a bar extends below the horizontal axis, the lower the risk in that type of area. The risk of death excludes that from external causes such as traffic accidents or suicide. The graph shows that in England and Wales, the risk of mortality falls as the amount of green space in an urban neighbourhood increases but in Scotland, there’s no significant relationship.

We spent a long time looking at whether these relationships were different for men and women, for older, working and younger age people, for more and less urban areas, for richer and poorer groups, for deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease, for measures of self-reported illness, and for different definitions of green space and neighbourhood. We only found a significant, protective relationship between mortality and green space for working age men living in the poorest two income-deprivation quartiles. Among these working-age men, those resident in the greenest urban areas were about 16% less likely to die than those resident in the least green urban areas.

On the whole though, we found very little evidence supporting the idea that urban neighbourhoods with more green space also have lower rates of mortality and morbidity.

The absence of effects for women echoes findings in England and Wales, and is likely linked to gender differences in the frequency and type of green space use. Women are known to use green spaces less often than men. We have written about this in the past and you can read our paper about it here.

So – why don’t we see a strong link between how much green space there is in a neighbourhood in Scotland, and how healthy it is? It seems very unlikely that the beneficial  biological and psychological processes which being in green space seem to trigger, just don’t happen to Scottish people. We may be different up here, but we’re not a different species…

We checked to see if our methods, or the data sets used might explain it, but we got the same results whichever data or method we tried. We could not allow for differences in the quality or types of urban green space within Scotland, and between England, Wales and Scotland, and it is possible that this is partly responsible; perhaps urban green spaces in Scotland are smaller, or less conducive to use. Perhaps the weather is so awful up here, that people just don’t want to go outside (though, it has been known to rain in Wales too…). We also wondered whether the so-called Glasgow effect was responsible, but we got the same pattern of results when we excluded Glasgow from the analysis.

Our best bet is that the Scottish population has a higher level of underlying poor health and risky behaviours such as smoking and drinking. The impact of green space on risk of mortality is, even in England, relatively weak. Any benefits of green space in urban Scotland may just be swamped by other things that damage health.

It’s not all bad news though. Whilst greener neighbourhoods might not be healthier in urban Scotland, the people who actually visit and use green spaces, whether for exercise, or just to get away from it all for a while, do seem to have better mental health and more life satisfaction, all else being equal We have published some of those results already and blogged about them too. We have more evidence that folk who do use green spaces reap health and wellbeing benefits, and will be blogging more about it once those studies are published.

In the meantime, the message is that park down the road will probably do you an awful lot more good if you actually visit it…

Key questions for researching natural environments and health

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.

Regular physical activity in natural environments halves risk of poor mental health

Regular exercise in a natural environment may cut the risk of suffering from poor mental health by half, according to a new study published by CRESH today.

Rich Mitchell studied the use of natural and non-natural environments for physical activity, like walking, running and cycling. He found regular use of natural environments such as forests and parks seemed to protect against mental ill-health, whilst use of non-natural environments like a gym, did not.

Previous experimental studies have shown that exercise in natural environments has a positive effect on biomarkers and self-reports of stress, on mood and reported levels of fatigue. This new study was designed to look at whether such effects can be detected in the general population in every day settings.

Data from the Scottish Health Survey 2008, described the different environments in which 1890 respondents were physically active, including woodlands, parks, swimming pools, the gym, the streets and the home. The data also showed how often respondents used each environment and how physically active they were overall. Rich looked at the association between use of each environment and the risk of poor mental health as measured by the General Health Questionnaire. Only activity in natural environments was associated with a lower risk of poor mental health.

Rich said “I wasn’t surprised by the findings that exercise in natural environments is good for your mental health, but I was surprised by just how much better it is for your mental health to exercise in a green place like a forest, than in other places like the gym.”

 “Woodlands and parks seemed to have the greatest effect, so the message to doctors, planners and policy makers is that these places need protecting and promoting.

 “The results suggest that making the decision to exercise in a natural environment just once a week could be enough to gain a benefit. Any additional use may have a bigger effect.”

The study, published online by Social Science & Medicine, revealed that local pavements or streets was the environment most commonly used regularly for physical activity, followed by home/garden. Around 50 per cent of the sampled group reported using any natural environment at least once in the last month.

Rich did not know the type, duration or intensity of activity conducted in each environment and noted that this was a weakness in the study, but is also an area that could be looked at in more detail in future.

You can see Rich talking about the study here: http://itunes.gla.ac.uk/web/news/video/RichardMitchell.mp4 

You can read the full study here http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.04.012 (access required). If you don’t have access and want to read it, please email Rich at Richard.Mitchell@glasgow.ac.uk and ask for a copy.

The research was funded by the Scottish Government’s Rural and Environmental Science and Analytical Services division (RESAS).