Category Archives: Physical Environment

What is ‘on the ground’ in a city linked to levels of inequality in life satisfaction

In a European-wide study of 63,554 people from 66 cities in 28 countries, we found links between urban design and levels of inequality in life satisfaction. This is the first study to theorise and examine how the entire urban landscape may affect levels of and inequalities in wellbeing in a large international sample.

Cities with an even distribution of facilities, housing and green space were linked with lower levels of inequality between residents’ life satisfaction levels, suggesting that more equal access to a range of facilities and types of land may help reduce the gap in life satisfaction between the most economically-deprived and most affluent residents of a city.

There was a strong link between higher life satisfaction and living in cities with homes surrounded by natural, green space. However, lower life satisfaction was linked to living in cities that had more wasteland, more space dedicated to housing, and more space in which all the land is concrete or tarmacked.

Implications for policy and planning.

The findings of our study suggest that urban planning has a role to play in addressing inequalities in cities. Our finding that more equal distribution of land cover/use is associated with lower levels of socio-economic inequality in life satisfaction supports the idea that city environments could be equigenic – that is, could create equality.

What people want or need from their city varies moment to moment, day to day, life stage to life stage. If a city is varied enough to offer people what they need, when they need it, it is likely to support a higher quality of life.

Three Generation Out Walking

Why understanding city design is important for population health and well-being?

With the United Nations reporting that more than half the world’s population residing in urban areas and this proportion rising, it is important to understand how well-planned urban environment might improve, and reduce inequalities in, quality of life. Therefore, understanding the influence urban environments can have on all aspects of health and wellbeing is increasingly important. Cities are continuously evolving and there is ample opportunity to ensure these are healthier and happier place to live.

What we did:

We applied theory and methods from landscape ecology to explore associations between cities’ land cover/use, residents’ reported life satisfaction and within-city socio-economic inequalities in life satisfaction. We joined individual-level responses to the European Urban Audit (EUA) Perception Surveys (2012 and 2015) with city-level data from the European Urban Atlas classifying land cover/use into 26 different classes. Our sample included 63,554 people from 66 cities in 28 countries.

The study, ‘Are urban landscapes associated with reported life satisfaction and inequalities in life satisfaction at the city level? A cross-sectional study of 66 European Cities’ is published in Social Science & Medicine (Open Access). The work was funded by The Medical Research Council (MRC) and Scottish Government Chief Scientist Office.

By Rich Mitchell, Natalie Nicholls & Jon Olsen , Neighbourhoods and Communities programme, MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow.

Do people actually use the facilities in their home neighbourhood?

This blog explores a key question in neighbourhood and health research: if there is a facility or amenity close to someone’s home, is it OK to assume they use it? Surprisingly, this assumption is at the heart of a lot of health and environment research.

We often have data which tells us where facilities and amenities are, and we tend to make the assumption that proximity means use. So, for example, if we see that some neighbourhoods have more parks or more leisure facilities, we expect the people who live in that neighbourhood use them more. Understanding local amenity and facility use is important because we want to know whether / how these things affect health.

With technological advances in recent years, studies have started to collect precise data which tell us exactly where people go using global position system (GPS) devices. We no longer have to assume, for example, that if there’s a park close to a child’s home, they will visit it. The GPS tracks we collect will tell us if they did or not. That presents an opportunity to test our assumptions.

Do children use facilities they have access to in their home neighbourhood?

Our team is interested in children’s use of facilities in and around their homes and to test whether we need GPS to research this we conducted an analysis of facility availability and facility use for 30 10-year-old children living in Glasgow. We used data from GPS devices worn by the children for eight days. These children were part of our ‘Studying Physical Activity in Children’s Environments across Scotland’ Study (SPACES).

The diagram below shows what we did. Our key finding was that facility availability in the home neighbourhood is not a good indicator of facility use; the children used facilities from across a much wider area in the city, even if they had a facility close to their home.  For example, 18 of the 30 children (60%) had a leisure centre within their ‘neighbourhood’ (which we defined as 800m around their home). Only 3 of the 18 actually visited that facility (as identified by their GPS tracks). Of those 18 children, 8 actually visited a leisure centre outside of their ‘neighbourhood’. We saw the same kind of pattern when exploring availability and visits to playing fields, public parks and libraries

Blog graphic

Are our results similar to other research?

Yes, other studies that used GPS devices have found that children do spend time outside of their immediate home area for specific purposes. For example, a 2017 study by Chambers and colleagues in Wellington, New Zealand analysed leisure time GPS data (before and after school) in 114 children aged 11 to 13 years from 16 schools, and found that 38% of their leisure time was spent outside of the home neighbourhood (using a 750m buffer around the home). Time outside of the home neighbourhood was mostly spent visiting their school, other residential locations, and fast food outlets.

These results, and those from similar studies, show that it is important not to treat what’s in someone’s immediate home neighbourhood as a good measure of what they do, or in epidemiological language ‘what they are exposed to’. We must challenge the idea that residential neighbourhood is an adequate way to capture the socio-environmental factors which contribute to health. Many people, including children, can and do access environments well beyond their immediate home neighbourhood. We think that a much wider geographic area should be considered when we’re asking questions about how environment affects health and we call this the city-wide landscape.

What does this mean for future research?

It’s clear that the ‘traditional’ approach which uses someone’s neighbourhood (often defined by a distance around their home, or an administrative area in which their home sits) to assess their access to facilities or exposure to environments is seriously flawed.

  • Other methodological approaches are required to measure ‘exposure’ to environment;
  • We must move beyond traditional fixed neighbourhood-health relationships (although we can’t ignore them);
  • We should embrace and integrate innovative technology to explore mobility (e.g. GPS and accelerometer).

Of course, even when we’re able to see exactly where people go and what they do, we still need to understand the decisions people make about whether or not to visit or spend time at different places.

By Jon Olsen, Research Associate with the Neighbourhoods and Communities programme, MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow.

Urban health and neighbourhood effects: PhD studentships at Glasgow Uni

CRESH’s Rich Mitchell is part of the GCRF Funded Centre for Sustainable, Healthy and Learning Cities and Neighbourhoods (SHLC) at the University of Glasgow. The centre is offering 3 new PhD studentships which include a focus on neighbourhood and city effects on health. More details and how to apply can be found below and via the University’s Website: http://bit.ly/SHLCPhD

Closing Date: 17 June 2018

Research Topic

Candidates are required to provide an outline proposal of no more than 1000 words. We are particularly interested in proposals that encompass any of the following topics:

a) The development and operationalisation of indicators/classification/measures of spatial differentiation (including its temporal evolution) of neighbourhoods within SHLC case study cities, and the implications of spatial differentiation for access to public services;

b) The development and operationalisation of indicators/classification/measures for lifelong learning in cities and neighbourhoods in the global south, including links to a range of life wide literacies;

c) Qualitative/ethnographic studies of neighbourhoods in SHLC case study cities paying particular attention to the interaction between urban, health and education challenges

d) Investigations of the impact of informality on social sustainability in neighbourhoods within SHLC case study cities, paying particular attention to the interaction between urban, health and education challenges

e) Understanding the relationships between neighbourhood-level and city-level influences on residents’ health, paying particular attention to variations by health outcome, person and/or SHLC case study city/country.

The award
Both Home/EU and International applicants are eligible to apply. The scholarship is open to +3 (3 years PhD only) commencing in October 2018 and will provide: a stipend at the ESRC rate, 100% tuition fee waiver, and access to the Research Training Support Grant.

How to Apply

All applicants should complete and collate the following documentation then attach to a single email and send to socsci-scholarships@glasgow.ac.uk with the subject line ‘GCRF SHLC Scholarship application‘ by 17 June 2018

  1. Academic Transcript(s) and Degree Certificate(s)

Final or current degree transcripts including grades and degree certificates (and official translations, if needed) – scanned copy in colour of the original documents.

  1. References

2 references on headed paper (academic and/or professional).

At least one reference must be academic, the other can be academic or professional. Your references should be on official headed paper. These should also be signed by the referee.

If your referees would prefer to provide confidential references direct to the University then we can also accept the reference by email, from the referee’s official university or business email account to socsci-scholarships@glasgow.ac.uk clearly labelling the reference e.g. “<applicant name> CoSS Scholarship Reference”

  1. Copy of CV
  2. Research Proposal 

Applicants are required to provide research proposal of not more than 1000 words. It should include:

  • a straightforward, descriptive, and informative title
  • the question that your research will address
  • a justification of why this question is important and worth investigating
  • an assessment of how your own research will engage with recent research on the subject
  • a brief account of the methodology and data sources you will use
  • References to sources cited in the proposal and an indicative wider bibliography (The references and bibliography are in addition to the 1000 words).

For more information please visit the University’s website (http://bit.ly/SHLCPhD) or contact SHLC’s Senior Business Manager Gail Wilson gail.wilson@glasgow.ac.uk

TOBACCO OUTLET DENSITY AND PATHWAYS TO SMOKING AMONG TEENAGERS

Why are adolescents that live in areas with high concentrations of tobacco shops more likely to smoke?

New findings suggest Scottish teenagers living in areas with a high density of shops selling tobacco have greater knowledge about cigarette brands.

Earlier work in Scotland found that adults and adolescents living in areas with high densities of shops selling tobacco were more likely to smoke. Public health researchers have suggested that restrictions on tobacco retail outlet density are a potential ‘new frontier’ in the long-running campaign to achieve a tobacco ‘endgame’. However, the reasons why exposure to greater numbers of tobacco outlets is associated with smoking are unclear and the types of restrictions on retail density that might best support this public health goal are not known.

SALSUS _Q_cover_2A new study by CRESH has explored possible pathways linking tobacco outlet density to smoking among adolescents. Our work used responses from 22,049 13 and 15 year olds to the 2010 Scottish School Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use Survey. Data from the Scottish Tobacco Retailers Register were used to calculate a measure of the density of tobacco outlets around the survey respondents’ homes.

We were interested to know whether adolescents in areas with more tobacco outlets had better knowledge of tobacco products, and so assessed how many cigarette brands they could name. We also looked at whether adolescents in high outlet density areas had more positive attitudes about smoking as it has been suggested that exposure to outlets and the tobacco marketing and purchasing found within them may ‘normalise’ smoking. We examined whether in areas where there are more tobacco outlets it may be easier for adolescents to make underage cigarette purchases. Finally, we considered tobacco price, assessing whether in areas with more tobacco shops, and more retail competition, cigarettes were cheaper. Continue reading TOBACCO OUTLET DENSITY AND PATHWAYS TO SMOKING AMONG TEENAGERS

Jobs at the GCRF Centre for Sustainable, Healthy and Learning Cities and Neighbourhoods

Five Research Fellow posts are available at the GCRF Centre for Sustainable, Healthy and Learning Cities and Neighbourhoods (SHLC). SHLC is one of the 37 major projects funded for 4 years by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Research Councils UK Collective Fund, which aims to build upon research knowledge in the UK, and strengthen research capacity overseas, to help address challenges in the developing countries.

SHLC will conduct comparative studies of urbanisation and the formation and differentiation of neighbourhoods in cities in order to address the challenges associated with large-scale rural-to-urban migration in Africa and Asia. The Centre, based at Glasgow, has eight international partners in South Africa, Tanzania, Rwanda, India, Bangladesh, China and the Philippines.

These jobs require expert knowledge in the areas of education, health, or urban studies in relation to developing countries from the perspective of development studies, geography, urban planning, urban studies, migration, public policy or other relevant social science disciplines.

Specifically, we expect each of the five posts to contribute specialist knowledge to the Centre in at least one of the following areas:

  • Cities, urbanisation and urban development in Africa, South Asia and/or East Asia
  • Education policy research and provision in developing countries
  • Health policy research and health facility provision in developing countries
  • Quantitative research and analytical skills including social survey, spatial analysis, GIS, Big Data.
  • Qualitative research and analytical skills and methods

    For further information and applying, please visit the following web site:
    https://www.gla.ac.uk/it/iframe/jobs/

    Search College of Social Sciences (Job Reference Number: 019448) Closing Date: 13th December 2017

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?

Are people in poor health more likely to move to poorer quality physical environments?

By Helena Tunstall

Grangemouth Refinery, UK
Grangemouth Refinery, UK

It is well known that people living in neighbourhoods with poorer quality physical environments tend to have worse health than those living in better quality environments. For example, those in areas with higher levels of air pollution have greater risk of death from respiratory and cardiovascular disease. However, the vast majority of these studies do not consider the possibility that patterns of residential moves may concentrate people with poorer health in certain types of environments. This is important because it is feasible that the links between the environment and health may, at least partially, be explained by the migration of people with poorer health to poor quality environments. Continue reading Are people in poor health more likely to move to poorer quality physical environments?

Does deindustrialisation explain low levels of physical activity in the UK?

by Esther Rind

In the UK, as in many other affluent countries, levels of physical activity have been declining in recent decades. In many areas with a history of heavy manual employment levels of physical activity are particularly low. This has been linked to a considerable reduction in work-related activities, coupled with a generally more sedentary life-style and the development of  broader environmental factors unconducive to physical activity (e.g. increased traffic makes walking and cycling less safe and attractive). Furthermore, previous research has highlighted that participation in leisure-time physical activity is relatively low across those employed in physically demanding industries. Low levels of recreational physical activity in combination with a considerable loss of work activity would therefore result in particularly low activity levels in the former manual workforce. Continue reading Does deindustrialisation explain low levels of physical activity in the UK?

Social differences in pollution across the EU may help to explain health inequalities

As a European Commission report and an important academic paper have recently reminded us, air pollution remains a persistent threat to population health across Europe. Pollutants such as particulate matter and ozone are among the leading causes of premature mortality and respiratory-related health outcomes. Globally, exposure to air pollution ranks as one of the top ten risk factors for health. Continue reading Social differences in pollution across the EU may help to explain health inequalities

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

Green space, physical activity and health in New Zealand

A new piece of CRESH research has been published online in the journal Public Health this week.  The paper “The role of physical activity in the relationship between urban green space and health” can be downloaded here.  We looked at the health of over 8000 individuals who were interviewed for the New Zealand Health Survey in 2006 and 2007 and asked whether they were likely to be healthier if they lived in greener neighbourhoods.  We found that residents of greener neighbourhoods did indeed have better cardiovascular and mental health, independently of their individual risk factors (e.g., sex, age, socioeconomic status).  Green space might benefit health because it provides greater opportunities for physical activity, and we were able to test this hypothesis because the New Zealand Health Survey included information about how physically active each individual respondent typically was.  We found that although physical activity was higher in greener neighbourhoods it did not fully explain the green space and health relationship.  Therefore, other pathways between green space and health (e.g., social contacts, attention restoration) are likely to be equally/more important.

Author: Liz Richardson

CRESH Seminar 6th Nov: Air Pollution Kills! So What? Air Quality Engineering to Improve Public Health

CRESH Seminar Announcement

Air Pollution Kills! So What? Air Quality Engineering to Improve Public Health

Julian Marshall

Department of Civil Engineering

University of Minnesota

When? 11-12pm Tues 6th November

Where? Hutton Room (3.18), Institute of Geography, Drummond St, Edinburgh

Abstract
The World Health Organization estimates that urban air pollution is one of the top 15 causes of death globally (one of the top 10 causes in high-income countries), responsible for ~ 1.7% of deaths annual (high-income countries, 2.1%). How can we reduce those health effects? This presentation will discuss three investigations into that question. (1) Urban form describes the physical layout of an urban area – for example, city shape, population density, and “patchiness” of urban growth. We have found that air pollution is related to urban form, for cities in the US and internationally, raising the question of whether urban planning can help cities meet air quality goals. (2) In low-income countries, indoor air can be especially polluted, owing to combustion of solid fuels for heating and cooking. In a rural village in Karnataka, India, we conducted a randomized control trial of a higher-efficiency stove, to test whether the stove improves indoor air pollution, health effects, and climate-relevant emissions. (3) Prior research emphasizes the health benefits of active travel (walking, biking). Can urban planning increase active travel without worsening exposure to air pollution? We explore spatial patterns in risks from those two factors (physical inactivity; and exposure to air pollution). A constant theme through these topics is environmental justice: which groups have higher exposures to air pollution, and how exposure correlates with demographic attributes such as race and income.

 

 

CRESH Symposium on Physical Activity and the Environment. November 19th

One day symposium – Physical Activity and the Environment

School of Geosciences, Drummond Street, University of Edinburgh

19th November 10.00 – 16.30

Evidence exists to suggest that physical activity is important for health and that low levels of physical activity are of increasing concern. The global importance of this was highlighted in a recent collection of papers in The Lancet quantifying the public health importance of physical activity. The local environment can provide opportunities for promoting or hindering engagement in physical activity and recent research in this field has sought to understand, if and how, features of the local environment shape individual health related behaviours, and in turn, area level health inequalities.

This workshop will bring together academics, public health professionals and policy makers to discuss emerging research and interventions in this area. Speakers from both academia and public policy will present current research and interventions and a group discussion will consider the future for work in this area.

9.30        Coffee and registration

10.00     Welcome

10:15     Prof Nanette Mutrie, Sport, Physical Education & Health Sciences, University of Edinburgh

10.45     Ian Findlay, Chief Officer, Paths for all

11.15     Coffee

11.45     Dr Niamh Shortt, CRESH, University of Edinburgh

12:30     Lunch

13.30     Sharon Allison, Physical Activity and Health Alliance Coordinator, NHS Health Scotland

14.00     Prof Andy Jones, Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR), University of East Anglia

14.30     Coffee

15.00     Where next for research and policy on physical activity and the environment (Group discussion facilitated by Prof Richard Mitchell and Prod Jamie Pearce)

16.30     Wine reception

 

Places are limited and will be allocated on a first come first served basis.  Please register your interest by Friday November 2nd by contacting Fiona Hartree on 0131 651 4348 or email Fiona.Hartree@ed.ac.uk

Stigma, environments and health inequalities: why should we be interested?

In recent years there has been a great deal of interest amongst health researchers in the role of social stigma in affecting health. Social stigma can be articulated as a majority view that works to spoil the identity of others on the basis of a discriminating characteristic such as race, gender or class. The social stigma associated with some minority groups has been shown to have health salience in terms of providing an obstacle to gaining access health care, housing provision, welfare, employment and other underlying factors affecting health. Groups that have been the subjects of research include disabled, homeless and itinerant populations and this body of work has revealed the multitude of interpersonal and institutional factors linking discrimination with health. Stigma has also been adopted as a deliberate strategy in health promotion initiatives, most notably in tobacco control with recent work beginning to question whether the denormalisation and stigmatisation of smoking (and the smoker) has reached its limit as a public health goal.

Given the long tradition of work on stigma and health, and the importance of stigma for establishing and perpetuating health inequalities, it is perhaps surprising that few researchers have considered the potential significance of place and the environment in establishing, perpetuating and mediating social stigma. In a recent commentary* on a Japanese paper on place-based discrimination published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, I argue that geographers (and others with interests in place, space and health) could productively consider the role of spatial stigma in affecting the health of local residents. Spatial stigma arises in places with notoriety in the public discourse, and that are constructed as ‘no-go zones’ or ‘sink estates’ that require constant policing.  Neighbourhoods such as Toxteth in Liverpool, South Central in Los Angeles or the French banlieues have for instance been prejudiced by deep-rooted geographical discrimination.  Key to the argument in the commentary is that there are a range of consequences for population health of residing in a highly stigmatised community. Yet very few empirical studies have tested the salience of spatial stigma in affecting population health.

So why should researchers with interests in the environment and spatial inequalities in health be concerned with place-based stigma? In the Social Science and Medicine commentary, I suggest that health might be compromised by spatial stigma through a series of (non-mutually exclusive) individualised and institutional pathways, which in turn can exacerbate geographical inequalities in health. These include:

1. Being ‘looked down on’ because of residing in a stigmatised community can detrimentally affect a number of life chances such as education and training opportunities, employment prospects and the prospects of developing interpersonal relationships. These factors have all been implicated in studies of health.

2. Stigma relating to particular places may act as ‘badge of dishonour’ that results in local residents taking actions such as concealing their address, avoiding receiving visitors or providing excuses to others for where they live. These feelings of shame can work to spoil, manipulate and mediate individual identities and social relations and affect health (e.g. health behaviours or mental health).

3. Place-based stigma affects the levels investment and disinvestment of public and private resources put into the local community. Progressive social policy is undermined by the lack of investment in the local infrastructure, housing and other services that provide the opportunities for healthy living.

4. Social networks, community social bonds and collective efficacy are affected by residents’ withdrawal from the public realm in response to the perceived threats associated with spatial stigma (e.g. crime). The breakdown of these community ties is detrimental to physical and mental health outcomes of local populations.

In short, there is plenty of evidence from the urban sociology and urban geography literature that through a variety of intersecting pathways place-based stigmatisation is harmful to the life chances of local residents. The population health consequences of place-based stigma are however less well established; understanding these pathways is an important challenge for researchers with an interest in the environment and health. This challenge is particularly important during a period of austerity with major reductions in state investment in a range of health related infrastructure. A likely consequence of this retrenchment is the heightened stigmatisation of many socially disadvantaged communities with potentially disastrous implications for public health and health inequalities.

Jamie Pearce, August 2012

jamie.pearce@ed.ac.uk

 *Library access required; if you are unable to get hold of the paper then I’d be please to email you a copy (jamie.pearce@ed.ac.uk). .

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).

More green space equals less stress (as measured by cortisol)

A project team which includes Rich Mitchell has just published a study showing that cortisol circulation (a marker of stress) is more favourable in areas with greater amounts of green space. The team was led by Catharine Ward Thompson, at OpenSpace research centre. The study is the first to show effects of green space on biomarkers of stress in everyday (i.e. non-experimental) settings. It’s published in Landscape and Urban Planning and you may be able to read it here . The study is part of the wider GreenHealth project, in which CRESH plays a large part. It was funded by the by the Scottish Government’s Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services (RESAS) Division. For those without access to the journal, here’s the abstract:

Green space has been associated with a wide range of health benefits, including stress reduction, but much pertinent evidence has relied on self-reported health indicators or experiments in artificially controlled environmental conditions. Little research has been reported using ecologically valid objective measures with participants in their everyday, residential settings. This paper describes the results of an exploratory study (n = 25) to establish whether salivary cortisol can act as a biomarker for variation in stress levels which may be associated with varying levels of exposure to green spaces, and whether recruitment and adherence to the required, unsupervised, salivary cortisol sampling protocol within the domestic setting could be achieved in a highly deprived urban population. Self-reported measures of stress and general wellbeing were also captured, allowing exploration of relationships between cortisol, wellbeing and exposure to green space close to home. Results indicate significant relationships between self-reported stress (P < 0.01), diurnal patterns of cortisol secretion (P < 0.05), and quantity of green space in the living environment. Regression analysis indicates percentage of green space in the living environment is a significant (P < 0.05) and independent predictor of the circadian cortisol cycle, in addition to self-reported physical activity (P < 0.02). Results also show that compliance with the study protocol was good. We conclude that salivary cortisol measurement offers considerable potential for exploring relationships between wellbeing and green space and discuss how this ecologically valid methodology can be developed to confirm and extend findings in deprived city areas to illuminate why provision of green space close to home might enhance health.

CRESH at the EUPHA conference on Public Health and Nature

Rich Mitchell is giving a keynote address at a pre-meeting of the European Public Health Association in Copenhagen on the 9th November. Rich will be talking about Public Health’s new found interest in natural environments, the demand for high quality evidence and the relationships between experimental and observational studies. More details on the meeting can be found here.

Mental health and the environment symposium: some thoughts

The CRESH symposium on mental health and the environment was one of those (quite rare) conference days that worked incredibly well. I’m not sure what it was that made the day so interesting and exciting. Perhaps it was the unusual mix of academics, practitioners, policy makers and GPs in the audience, all of whom seemed keen and willing to engage and debate. Perhaps it was the variety of interesting presentations. Whatever the magic ingredients, I came away from the day inspired and full of thoughts. I’d like to share two of them

1) There was much discussion during the day about the nature of ‘evidence’ for the influence of environment on health. There was a clear tension between the desire for evidence from ‘intervention / evaluation’ type studies, which hold the promise of identifying causal mechanisms and offer a higher standard of ‘proof’ about whether environment does or does not hold influence over health (especially if the studies are controlled in some way), and the bulk of existing evidence which stems from observational designs. It certainly feels like the balance of funding available for health research is shifting rapidly to favour study designs which are more experimental than observational. Colleagues of mine have recently had funding requests turned down because of their observational study design, and we have had papers rejected from leading medical journals specifically because of an observational design. This pressure is, rightly or wrongly, asking scientists to work further up the hierarchy of study designs. What concerns me is the extent to which we are ignoring the weakness of experimental / evaluation study designs, especially in a) the extent to which they have external validity (i.e. can we really learn anything about how the wider world works from the controlled and unusual situations that experimental studies either create or exploit) and b) the extent to which we are tempted to believe that what are often relatively short-term studies can really tell us much about how social and physical environments really influence population health and health inequalities. This is a topic to which we intend to return in the next CRESH event. What is the right balance between experimental and observational studies in a portfolio, or mixed economy, of evidence? Is it all over for observation?

2) Critical thinking is essential to the progress of science. If we don’t ask how, and for whom, our results or conclusions might not hold, our work is weaker. If we don’t question how and why we think and research in the way we do, our approaches will not develop. In one area CRESH researches, the health effects of contact with green spaces or natural environments, we frequently encounter land managers, policy makers and planners who adhere to a general orthodoxy that ‘green space is good for you’. The value of critical science is that it makes us aware that not everyone feels comfortable walking in the woods or the park, and that some people even feel threatened by open spaces in the their neighbourhoods. There is plenty of evidence from qualitative and quantitative studies that this is true.

One of the weaknesses of critical thinking in the field at the moment however is that the critique seems to stop at ‘not everyone benefits from green space’. My question is, what do we do with that knowledge? If we can understand how and for whom benefits are not realised, that could help adjust expectations about what green space can deliver, and also help us think through how benefits could be brought to a wider range of people. Perhaps the real value of critical approaches to thinking about environment and health is that they pose these questions.

News about the next CRESH symposium will appear on the site soon. In the meantime, if any attendees want to post their thoughts on the mental health and environment day, please use the form below.

This is a personal post, written by Rich Mitchell. It doesn’t represent the views of ‘CRESH’

Our green space work in the news

Green spaces keep men healthy

Jun 21, 2010

Recent work by Dr Elizabeth Richardson and Prof Richard Mitchell attracted considerable media interest recently.

Their study found that men who live in neighbourhoods with more green space are less likely to die from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases – conditions that account for almost half of all deaths in the UK. But it also found that these benefits of greener neighbourhoods do not extend to women. The results were a surprise because it had previously been widely assumed that green spaces are equally good for everyone, through offering opportunities for physical activity and social contacts for example. The reasons for the findings were unclear, but other literature tells us that women use green space less than men and don’t exercise as much there, particularly if they perceive the area to be unsafe or threatening. This could explain the findings.

The study was the first to study green space and health relationships for the UK as a whole, as the researchers combined remotely sensed data and Ordnance Survey map data to quantify green space at a national level. Mortality statistics based on a population of almost 30 million adults were used, giving the results substantial significance. It should be stressed that as the study only considered mortality statistics it cannot be assumed that women’s health does not benefit from green space in other ways.

The paper “Gender differences in relationships between urban green space and health in the United Kingdom” was funded by the Forestry Commission and originally published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, but has now received diverse coverage through outlets such as BBC Radio Scotland, the Daily Telegraph, and even The Sun, where the headline read “Park life is better for blokes’ hearts”.

Links:

Daily Mail: “Why living near a park is good for a man’s heart and lungs”

Scotsman: “Women miss out on health benefit of green spaces, major study finds”

Scottish Sun: “Park life is better for blokes’ hearts”