Contact With Natural Spaces Improves the Health of the Population

Contact With Natural Spaces Improves the Health of the Population

19.7.2016
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The international community of professionals who work towards the recovery and creation of natural space—also called green infrastructure and ecosystem services—was agreeably surprised by Barcelona City Council’s adoption in 2014 of a strategy for urban green space called the Pla del Verd i de la Biodiversitat 2020 (Barcelona Green Infrastructure and Biodiversity Plan 2020).

We know that natural spaces are associated with improvements in health in various countries in Europe, North America and Oceania

The aims of this plan are to preserve and enhance Barcelona’s ecological infrastructure by ​​promoting the renaturalisation of the city and creating new elements to connect existing natural areas. To put it another way, the goal is to replace the concept of nature as an ornamental element with ​​an alternative model characterised by an interconnected network of natural areas rather than a map of isolated green spaces. To achieve this aim the plan makes use of two tools: urban green corridors and spaces susceptible to renaturalisation (disused sites, roofs, balconies, etc.), which are defined as opportunity areas.

At the beginning of April 2016, Barcelona hosted the Habitat III Thematic Meeting on Public Spaces. This was one of the 11 regional and thematic meetings held as part of the preparatory process for the United Nations Conference on Livability and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III), which will take place in mid-October in Quito (Ecuador). During the meeting, some professionals advocated the inclusion of large natural areas. However, the importance of small green spaces and the promotion of green corridors was not part of the discussion about the topics that should be included in the outcome document that will be approved at the Quito meeting.

Several studies have identified associations between contact with natural spaces and longer life, a better state of general and mental health, and a greater ability to cope with everyday problems

It is true that we do not yet know which characteristics of natural areas are most beneficial for the health of the population, what is the mechanism underpinning the relationship, or which natural spaces have the greatest positive impact on health. For example, practically all the existing scientific evidence focuses on green spaces and there are less than a dozen studies that assess the benefits of blue spaces, such as rivers, lakes, reservoirs and the sea.

It is true that natural spaces can have a negative impact on human health because of the risks they pose, including increased exposure to ultraviolet radiation, allergens and certain animals. However, we also know that they are associated with improvements in health in various countries in Europe, North America and Oceania and this has been demonstrated in relation to both large natural spaces and the greenery closer to homes, including the trees that line our streets, public flower beds and private gardens.

Studies in children have shown better concentration, emotional development, coordination, balance, (...) and even better cognitive development

Several studies in adults have identified associations between contact with natural spaces and longer life, a better state of general and mental health, and a greater ability to cope with everyday problems. Studies in children have shown positive associations between green environments and concentration, emotional development, coordination, balance, agility, self-confidence, self-discipline, social skills, and even better cognitive development.

Finally, the smaller number of studies that have investigated the effects of contact with natural spaces on people in prisons and hospitals report a lower number of health problems, less need for medical care and pain relief medication and shorter recovery times. Some studies on workplace environments have observed lower levels of nervousness and anxiety in offices where employees enjoy views of natural areas or interior plantings, for example.

With BlueHealth, we will asses the potential benefits and risks of blue spaces for both health and welfare

We hope that the final Habitat III document adopted in Quito will refer to the health benefits of natural areas in general and not just to a specific type of space. At the same time, we should keep an eye on the results of initiatives such as the recently launched BlueHealth Project (2016-2020)  led by the University of Exeter in the UK, in which ISGlobal centre, is one of the participating institutions. The aim of BlueHealth is to assess the potential benefits and risks of blue spaces for both health and welfare.