Blue Spaces: Health Allies, But With Some Knowledge Gaps

Blue Spaces: Health Allies, But With Some Knowledge Gaps

19.7.2019
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[This article has been originally published in Catalan in 'Espai Salut' newsletter of Diputació de Barcelona]

Beaches are widely viewed as recreational spaces—the ideal place to kick back and relieve stress. Rivers are similarly relaxing. Is it any surprise that so many urban parks have fountains and other water features? Traditionally, medicine practitioners saw a link between health and natural spaces with water. It used to be common for doctors to encourage certain types of patients to spend time on the coast, giving rise to what we now know as spas. But what is the real link between these natural spaces and health? How much do we really know?

Today’s scientists refer to accessible outdoor public spaces that prominently feature water as blue spaces. This term is analogous to green spaces, used to refer to outdoor areas characterised by vegetation. The concept of blue space includes natural features such as oceans and rivers as well as artificial elements like ponds and the ornamental fountains found in parks.

Today’s scientists refer to accessible outdoor public spaces that prominently feature water as blue spaces, including natural features such as oceans and rivers as well as artificial elements like ponds and the ornamental fountains found in parks

Scant Scientific Evidence

Although blue spaces are traditionally regarded as having health benefits, the scientific evidence for this assertion is actually quite thin. Only very recently have researchers taken an interest in studying whether there is really a relationship between blue spaces, well-being and health and determining what benefits these spaces provide.

Two years ago, researchers from ISGlobal reviewed the scientific literature on the relationship between blue spaces and health. The authors of the paper noted that the small number of studies and the methodological differences between them made it difficult to draw conclusions. However, they did find evidence that living close to or regularly visiting blue spaces was associated with higher levels of physical activity and better mental health.

Scientific evidence for this assertion is actually quite thin. However, researchers find evidence that living close to or regularly visiting blue spaces was associated with higher levels of physical activity and better mental health

Blue Spaces and Physical Activity

Proximity to blue space increases the likelihood that people will engage in physical activity. Blue spaces are therefore a key factor in the fight against sedentary behaviours—a major health risk factor. In fact, it is thought that the origin of many of the health benefits of blue space is their association with active lifestyles.

Some recent studies have provided evidence of this association. A 2011 study in Australia of more than 10,000 adults over 40 years of age found that people who lived closer to a coast or a river were more likely to walk more than 300 minutes per week.

A year later, the authors of a French study of more than 7,000 adults over 30 years of age found that people who lived less than one kilometre from a lake were more likely to have gone running in the previous week. Finally, a study of more than 70,000 people in England, published in 2015, reported higher levels of physical activity in people who had recently visited coastal areas than in those who had visited the countryside or urban greenspace environments.

Blue Spaces and Mental Health

Some studies have shown that contact with blue space has beneficial effects on mental health. One such study in the city of Barcelona examined more than 2,000 children between 7 and 10 years of age. The results, published in 2014, showed that the children who spent more time at the beach throughout the year had fewer emotional problems and higher levels of prosocial behaviour. The authors of another study, carried out in adults in the United Kingdom one year earlier, reported that living closer to the coast was associated with better mental health.

However, other studies have been unable to identify any association between positive effects—in terms of either physical activity or mental health—and exposure to blue spaces. In view of the inconsistency of the findings and the limited number of studies carried out to date, it is clear that what we don’t know still greatly outweighs what we do know and that much more scientific research into blue spaces is needed. The BlueHealth project—which has a foothold in Catalonia through ISGlobal—aims to alleviate this lack of knowledge. This pan-European project is funded by the European Union through the Horizon 2020 programme.

Appropriate infrastructure is needed to enable people to take full advantage of blue spaces, making them widely accessible

Meanwhile, we should not forget that we live in a privileged setting surrounded by an abundance of blue spaces. Appropriate infrastructure is needed to enable people to take full advantage of blue spaces, making them widely accessible. However, it is important that any such infrastructure projects be sustainable and respectful of the natural environment. A recent project of this kind was the regeneration of the Besòs Riverside Park, in Barcelona. According to an analysis carried out as part of the BlueHealth project, this park will help to prevent as many as seven deaths each year and save €23 million annually in public expenditure.

In the medium term, we hope to obtain much more solid evidence on the health benefits of blue space. We also hope to see the development of more and better infrastructure that will enable people to enjoy these spaces.