Dr Nicola Dempsey and Dr Julian Dobson.
We have long known that urban nature is good for our mental health, and the evidence continues to grow. Against a backdrop of the need to protect natural spaces in our cities and the crisis in mental health, the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Sheffield has been leading the £1.3 million NERC-funded IWUN research project.
Among a range of project objectives, IWUN aimed to identify feasible and acceptable green space interventions which bring potential positive mental health outcomes for the residents of Sheffield, taking the whole city as a case study.
We started by looking at the existing empirical evidence and knowledge on healthy green spaces research which highlighted some gaps in terms of what had been researched as well as the importance of local context. Sheffield is a very green city but, our IWUN colleagues led by Paul Brindley identified that the quality of that ‘green’ is not equally distributed across the city – we therefore knew that what worked in one part of the city would not necessarily work everywhere.
We talked to 122 local practitioners, including parks managers, city planners, GPs, community health workers and local volunteer groups, in a series of interviews and focus groups and identified 35 interventions which fell into four main categories: capital investment (or place-making), maintenance and policy (or place-keeping), social and healthcare interventions (or place-prescribing), and finally cross-cutting interventions to facilitate specific initiatives in green spaces.
With the local experts, we whittled this long list of 35 down to just 5 interventions to which our IWUN colleague Prof. John Henneberry then applied a cost-utility and cost-benefit analysis to estimate the costs and benefits.
The 5 interventions found to be most beneficial for the mental health of urban residents are:
- Improved access to green spaces, including walking and cycling routes
- New or upgraded toilets and cafés in parks and woodlands
- Set and maintain a minimum standard of regular, sustained maintenance
- Employ parks staff to encourage outdoor activities and volunteering
- Support voluntary and community organisations to animate green spaces
These seemingly simple interventions are not simple to implement but they are hugely powerful for people’s mental health. They cut across national and local government departments – transport, green space and environment, health, education… And this requires cross-department and cross-sector working which does not come easily for organisations – described as “‘organisational firewalls’ between departments and organisations” by one of our interviewees.
Implementing these interventions across a city would mean that all citizens would be able to benefit from everyday nature on their doorstep. Currently, urban residents do not have equal physical, cultural and social access to natural spaces – it depends on whereabouts in the city they live. The mental health and wellbeing benefits of nature are not always available to support the people who need them most. This is also because the benefits we get from urban nature depend on the local context – the specifics of the site we visit, our individual health condition and our previous and potential connections with urban nature.
This is why we need to make everyday nature amazing. To do this requires sustained investment in the everyday physical and social infrastructure in and around urban natural spaces. People must be able to reach these spaces safely and easily. And once they enter, the unique combination of nature, quality, diversity, activities and facilities means users have choices in how they gain the benefits of urban nature for their own mental health and wellbeing.
Click here to download our short IWUN policy and practice briefs