The CRESH team have been successful in securing a grant from the European Research Council entitled ‘Physical Built Environments and Health Inequalities’. The named investigators on the project are Dr Jamie Pearce, Dr Niamh Shortt and Prof Richard Mitchell. The project is funded for five years (2011-16) for €1,399,570.
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’
We’ve produced a draft proposal for measuring the baseline and future progress of Big Society at a local level. We would value thoughts and comments from interested parties on:
- our approach,
- our selection of variables with which to measure the Big Society and
- the methods we propose to use to develop the measure.
Please download the document here and comment by Friday April 22nd. Many thanks for your involvement.
The CRESH team and colleagues from Portsmouth and Liverpool are currently collaborating to produce a ‘blueprint’ for measuring Big Society. You can read more about the work and funders on the project page.
To design a measure of Big Society begs a question… what is Big Society? Actually defining it is not easy. Although the general idea has been quite clearly articulated by David Cameron, a huge range of supporters, detractors and commentators have been writing and blogging about what it means since the coalition government took power. Opinions vary about what Big Society is and is not. There are also strong views about whether it’s a good thing or not. The government is also now encountering the realities of putting an idea developed in opposition into practice. Tony Blair has some interesting things to say about the difference between having an idea in opposition, and delivering change in government…
Although debates continue about what a Big Society should look like and what policies the coalition need to build it, its key principle is clear; it represents a desire for a society in which citizens and communities take a vastly increased role in managing, shaping and delivering social and physical infrastructure. As Number 10 wrote in May 2010, their aim is “to create a climate that empowers local people and communities…[to] ‘take power away from politicians and give it to people’” .
We have a sense that some in government believe their job will be done once they change the law to empower people to run local services or to have a say on how their neighbourhood will be developed. The ‘offer’ to participate in a Big Society will have been made and it doesn’t matter who, or if anyone, takes up the offer. Others, however, want to see evidence of changes wrought. Will it alter how much people like you and I are aware of, care about, and get involved in, what’s happening in our local areas? Which communities will do well from it, and which will not? The fact that Big Society has the potential to affect everyone makes it an important thing to monitor and measure.
At the start of the project, we focused on designing a framework for understanding ‘Big Society’ and identifying the set and sequence of changes which expect to see if it’s ‘successful’. Then, we looked for datasets and indicators to measure each of these things. It’s remarkable how many surveys which would have been useful to monitor and measure the progress of Big Society, have been cut. On Friday, we will visit the Department for Communities and Local Government to present our work so far and hear what they have to say about it. Sometime after that, we will post information about our ‘model’ of Big Society and how it might be measured.
We are seeking to appoint a Postdoctoral Research Assistant in the field of Health and the Environment. Based at the School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh you will join the Centre for Research on Environment, Society and Health (CRESH) which is a virtual centre joining scientists from the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Our research is focused on exploring how physical and social environments can influence population health, for better and for worse.
The successful candidate will work with an active research team based in Edinburgh and Glasgow on two research projects. First, they will play a key role in an ESRC funded project that will investigate whether aspects of the physical environment exert an influence on physical activity levels at the individual-level. Second, complete a pilot study to investigate the role of the local physical and social environment in understanding inequalities in health amongst children and adolescents. Both roles will involve working with large social survey, health and environmental datasets, the application of statistical techniques to the data, interpretation of the results, dissemination of findings and developing new research proposals.
Closing date: 7th March 2011
New CRESH research has found that fast food outlets tend to cluster around schools. The work published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine demonstrated that fast food vendors are five times more likely to cluster around New Zealand schools than in other areas. Using data from four cities, the authors found that outlets are also more likely to be situated in poorer neighbourhoods. The results suggest that the geographical distribution of fast food outlets may be one factor in explaining the increase in obesity rates amongst youths, and its social distribution.
The work has been covered in the New Zealand media. See:
The academic paper can be found here:
CRESH are pleased to announce an interdisciplinary symposium to be held at the University of Edinburgh on 31st March 2011. The event is being organised with the University’s Human Geography Research Group, in the School of GeoSciences.
It is well recognised that mental health and illness are significant causes of human disability and impairment. Academic researchers and policy makers are increasingly concerned with the relationship between the environment and various mental health related outcomes. It is acknowledged that risk and resilience to mental illness and distress is a strongly linked to characteristics of the environments in which we live, work and play. This symposium will draw on work from a number of fields to consider the role of the physical, social, built and healthcare environments in understanding human mental health and wellbeing. This interdisciplinary symposium will be of interest to policy makers, students and academic researchers working in the field of mental health and wellbeing.
Professor Sarah Curtis, Durham University
Dr Anne Ellaway, MRC Glasgow.
Professor Christine Milligan, Lancaster University
Prof Richard Mitchell, University of Glasgow
Dr Liz Twigg, University of Portsmouth
The programme of talks for the day is available here.
Date: 31st March 2011
Time: 1000 to 1800 hrs
Please sign up before 28th February 2011 by contacting:
Anna Kenyon (A.Kenyon@sms.ed.ac.uk)