How the Regeneration of Natural Areas in Urban Environments Can Improve Our Health

How the Regeneration of Natural Areas in Urban Environments Can Improve Our Health

13.8.2019
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Acording to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 26% of men and 35% of women living in high-income countries do not get enough physical activity. Although we are aware of the benefits of physical activity for our health, combatting sedentary lifestyles and the health problems they generate (obesity, diabetes, etc.) continues to represent a major challenge for public health systems.

Lifestyle is the factor most responsible for whether we are more or less active people. And our lifestyle is determined by our environment—the place where we live. The findings of many scientific studies suggest that natural spaces promote physical activity and social cohesion and improve the overall well-being of the population. While most research to date has studied the health effects of green spaces (forests, meadows, urban parks, etc.), there is now a growing interest in understanding the effects of blue spaces (seas, rivers, lakes, springs).

Regenerating natural spaces that already exist in urban settings is one strategy that can be used to make the most of such unused amenities

Since most people now live in urban areas, there is a greater need to focus on the objective of bringing nature closer to people. This is not always easy to achieve. While there may be natural environments closer than we think, these are often in poor condition, inaccessible, or simply little known. Regenerating natural spaces that already exist in urban settings is one strategy that can be used to make the most of such unused amenities.

A good example is the regeneration of the Besòs River Park in the province of Barcelona. The park is a public space with walking and cycling trails situated on the banks of the final nine-kilometre stretch of the Besòs river. An ISGlobal study published earlier this year showed that the regeneration of this riverbank area was associated with health benefits because it gave rise to an increase in physical activity, which in turn led to savings for the health care system. The study concluded that the intervention prevented up to 7 deaths and 23 million euros in public health expenditure every year.

The summer of 2016 was the starting point for the project to redevelop the riverbank park along the right channel of the Besòs river, an area adjacent to the La Ribera neighbourhood in the town of Montcada i Reixac. The objective of the intervention was to facilitate public access to the riverbank area so that local residents could make use of the space and take advantage of this natural area situated so close to their homes.

Besòs River Park in the province of Barcelona

The objective of the ISGlobal study was to assess the impact of this intervention on the La Ribera neighbourhood, a socioeconomically depressed area. We analysed the changes in the use of the space, the physical activity levels of users and the way the space was perceived by the local population.

The objective of the ISGlobal study was to assess the impact of the regeneration of the Besòs River Park on the La Ribera neighbourhood, a socioeconomically depressed area

We used the SOPARC methodology, which is based on systematic observation of the study area to quantify the number of users, their characteristics (age, sex, ethnicity), and their physical activity levels (sedentary, moderate, or vigorous).  The park was observed during 13 one-hour sessions before and after the intervention.

We also conducted one-to-one interviews with a sample of La Ribera residents during which we asked questions designed to investigate their perception of their neighbourhood and the natural spaces as well as their state of health and well-being, physical activity levels and social relations.

We observed a significant increase in the percentage of all visitors to the park using the renovated area on the right bank of the river—which went from 30% before the intervention to 36% after the intervention—and a significant decrease in the percentage using the area that was not upgraded, which fell from 70% to 64% of the total. We also observed several changes in the sociodemographic characteristics of the population using the park following the intervention. For instance, although in the park as a whole we observed more men than women, following the intervention we observed a 43% increase in the number of women using in the renovated area. We also observed a slight increase in the number of children, although the most representative age groups were adults and older people. Finally, while more than 90% of the park users observed were Caucasian, we observed a significant increase in the non-Caucasian population in the renovated area after the intervention (rising from 3% to 8% of the total).

We observed a significant increase in the percentage of all visitors to the park using the renovated area on the right bank of the river—which went from 30% before the intervention to 36% after the intervention

With respect to physical activity, in the renovated area we observed an increase in sedentary users and users engaged in moderate physical activity, while in the rest of the park we observed an increase in the number of people engaged in vigorous physical activity. This finding suggests that the renovated area may be being used by local residents as a place to walk, relax, and socialise: less for vigorous physical activity and more for moderate activity (just walking to the river, something they may not have done before, involves some physical activity). These types of activities could have a positive impact on the mental health and well-being of the residents of La Ribera.

Besòs River Park in the province of Barcelona

In general, the local residents interviewed said that they were satisfied with the intervention. Many of them reported using the park and stressed that they liked living near a river and went there often because they enjoyed the visits and the calm of the park surroundings. The interviews also identified the local residents’ main criticisms of the intervention (the feeling that it is unfinished and problems with dogs, antisocial behaviour, etc.).

The findings of this study further strengthen the evidence that upgrading and regenerating natural spaces in urban areas is a useful way to create opportunities for social interaction and spaces where people can relax and enjoy themselves as well as to promote physical activity that improves the health and well-being of those using the space

The findings of this study further strengthen the evidence that upgrading and regenerating natural spaces in urban areas is a useful way to create opportunities for social interaction and spaces where people can relax and enjoy themselves as well as to promote physical activity that improves the health and well-being of those using the space. Finally, such interventions could help to reduce inequalities in access to natural spaces in urban areas between more and less disadvantaged population groups.