Dr Eva-Maria Scholz, Senior Specialist in Economics, Natural England
Nature has helped us through the last year, offering us opportunities to exercise, play, relax and socialise. Our appreciation for nature is highlighted in the latest results from Natural England’s People and Nature Survey: during the first coronavirus lockdown, people were spending more time in natural spaces than usual and the vast majority said that protecting the environment is important to them. Physical and mental health were reported as being key motivations for spending more time in nature.
How can we work with nature to address physical and mental health challenges?
The extent to which nature delivers health and wellbeing benefits depends on several factors. This includes how much nature there is, what condition it is in and whether it is in the right place. Using a natural capital approach can help local decision-makers understand what natural resources they have in their local area and how these provide benefits to people. Our Natural Capital Handbook sets out an approach that will help local authorities to include natural capital evidence in their strategic decision-making and identifies evidence-based tools that will help along the way.
Most people’s experiences of nature are in urban greenspaces. These public spaces are particularly important for the quarter of adults in England that do not have access to a private garden. Our upcoming National Framework of Green Infrastructure Standards will support local partners, including councils, in creating and maintaining green infrastructure that benefits their communities, particularly disadvantaged ones.
Green social prescribing is another example of how we can work with nature to deliver health and wellbeing benefits. This is the practice of referring patients to engage in nature-based activities to support their health and wellbeing. It connects people to community groups and agencies who help them access activities in green and blue spaces such as community gardening and food growing projects, walking and green gyms. We are helping to deliver the Green Social Prescribing Project, a £5.77 million cross-government partnership to test to how to scale-up green social prescribing to help improve mental health outcomes, reduce health inequalities and alleviate demand on the health and social care system.
Not everybody has equal access to nature
Unfortunately, not everybody has access to the natural spaces they need for their health and wellbeing. Adults with lower incomes, lower education levels, who are unemployed and those living in the most deprived areas are likely to spend less time outside according to our survey. Children from ethnic minority backgrounds and low-income households were also more likely to have spent less time in nature since the start of the pandemic.
A lot more needs to be done so that everybody can access the health and wellbeing benefits that thriving nature provides and there are some good examples of local places doing this. For example, we are collaborating with partners on the Children and Nature programme to create wildlife friendly school grounds to support children’s wellbeing and learning, deliver outreach activities in local woodlands and green spaces and support teachers to develop their skills and experience teaching outdoors.
This wealth of evidence leaves no doubt about the importance of connecting with nature for our physical health and our mental wellbeing. It’s vital that the whole of our society has access to these benefits. If we don’t tackle this, we cannot claim to have an equitable green recovery.
Thriving people need thriving nature
Thriving nature is fundamental to our health and happiness. That’s why nature’s recovery must be a priority as we take steps to recover from the pandemic. At Natural England we recognise that we cannot do this on our own: we are keen to work with partners, including councils, to ensure that nature thrives and delivers health and wellbeing benefits for us all.
The pandemic has changed our lives profoundly. We need to understand what the new normal looks like. Local partners are uniquely placed to offer insights into this as they understand local needs and priorities. For example, will our heightened appreciation for nature continue as restrictions ease? How can we support people in spending more time in nature long term, in a way that is safe and respectful to nature? What is our vision for creating places that improve our health and wellbeing? What changes do we need to make this happen? What is stopping us from doing this?
This article has been written by Natural England. Natural England is the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England. Its ambition is not just to improve nature, but to see it thriving everywhere. This is because Natural England recognises that a healthy natural environment is fundamental to everyone’s wealth, health and happiness.
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