There is growing interest in understanding how natural environments may support good health and wellbeing. Researchers have investigated effects of natural spaces on health behaviours, physical and mental health, and socio-economic health inequalities. Generally, positive relationships are demonstrated, and some explanatory theories for positive effects have been proposed. These include provision of locations and motivation for physical activity and opportunities for ‘restoration’ from the stresses of daily life. However, the evidence is mixed and occasionally contradictory. One reason for this variation may be related to the crude definitions of the natural environment or ‘greenspace’. Researchers often consider all natural areas together regardless of type, variety or quality. Natural areas, whether urban or rural, actually encompass a wide range of environmental characteristics which may have differing impacts on people’s behaviours, health and wellbeing. The lack of a nuanced consideration of nature with regard to its human health and wellbeing impacts has been highlighted as a gap in the evidence in several systematic reviews of existing research.
The aim of this project is to improve our understanding of relationships between natural environments and health by addressing the question: Do different types and qualities of natural environment have varying relationships with human health and wellbeing, and do these relationships differ according to rural/urban context and socio-economic status? This will be achieved by using some of the UK’s extremely valuable existing (secondary) datasets. Secondary datasets are very useful for this research because a) they have already been funded, collected and processed, so are very cost-effective and b) they tend to be very large, allowing us to address complex research questions. Our project will integrate two types of secondary data: 1) health and socio-economic status data (such as from the census and household surveys) and 2) indicators of ecological type (e.g. grassland, woodland, coast) and character (e.g. biodiversity, ecosystem quality, designated status). These relationships will initially be explored at a national level. This will be complemented by a case study using detailed local environmental data, which is only available at a smaller scale. The dual approach will allow for the cross-validation of findings. The analyses will mainly take an epidemiological approach, but the interdisciplinary nature of the team, research question and data means that a mix of social and natural science methods will be used.
The project will be led by a cross-disciplinary research team and advisory board incorporating experienced researchers in epidemiology, ecology, geography, sociology and psychology. It will benefit from collaboration with public and third sector bodies – Natural England, Forest Research and Cornwall Wildlife Trust.
Expected outcomes include advances in knowledge of direct environment/health policy relevance, developments in methodology and theory, increased research capacity, and (dependent on permissions) an ecological indicator dataset suitable for further linkage with population data. The outcomes will be of interest to academic and other public/private research end users. The evidence produced will allow Natural England, the Forestry Commission, Local Authorities and other organisations who manage the natural environment for human benefit to develop appropriate national and locally context relevant responses to policies such as those set out in the DEFRA white paper ‘The Natural Choice’. This research will facilitate the effective allocation of resources and the development of targeted interventions and programmes resulting in maximised benefit to the environment, society and individual. The project findings will be shared through various means including academic publication, international conference presentations, websites and networking events.
Institution & Funders
The project is based at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter Medical School. It has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, grant reference ES/K002872/1, and runs for 18 months from January 2013. The European Centre for Environment and Human Health is supported by investment from the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund Convergence Programme for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.