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Contains: Green Infrastructure and Spaces,Biodiversity, Ecosystem Services

Related to: Mental Health and Illness, Physical Activity, Inequalities

Natural environment and human health and wellbeing 1

Studies demonstrate that there are positive links between our health and wellbeing and levels of contact with natural and green spaces. (see Dahlgren and Whitehead 2)Natural Environment and Well Being diagram

The Government’s health white paper indicates that the availability of green and open spaces, influence the health and wellbeing of the local population.

It is thought that parks and green spaces can contribute to all aspects of health and well-being including increasing levels of physical activity. Studies suggest that being outside in a green space can promote mental well-being, relieve stress, overcome isolation, improve social cohesion and alleviate physical problems so that fewer working days are lost to ill health.

Urban vegetation and green space helps to reduce pollution and the build-up of the particulates that can aggravate respiratory diseases such as asthma and bronchitis. However, there has also been research that indicates that green space can contributes to stress reduction and the alleviation of depression and dementia.

Similarly, it is thought that green travel, including foot, cycle, horse and boat, can promote healthier lifestyles. Improving recreational links within urban areas and with surrounding landscapes, can encourage access to natural spaces, facilitate active lifestyles and help address health inequalities.

According to a study by the University of Exeter using data from 5,000 UK households and 10,000 adults over 17 years between 1991 and 2008, parks, gardens and green space in urban areas can improve the wellbeing and quality of life of people living there.  The study found that individuals reported less mental distress and higher life satisfaction when they were living in greener areas. This was true even after the researchers accounted for changes over time in participants' income, employment, marital status, physical health and housing type. 3  

Also, 91% of interviewees in the 2009 study, Future Health: Sustainable places for health and well-being, by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, thought that public parks and open spaces improve quality of life. 4

Physical health5

60% of interviewees  in the 2010 study Community Green: Using local spaces to tackle inequality and improve health thought pleasant local green spaces would improve their overall physical health. 6

The GreenSTAT is a visitor survey system, which records users’ views of their local parks and green spaces in the UK run by the charity Green Space. In a survey of 5831 respondents, 79% agreed with the statement: “Parks and open spaces help me stay fit and healthy”. Only 4.5% of respondents disagreed with the statement. 7

The survey also indicated that residents in high ‘greenery’ environments were 3.3 times as likely to take frequent physical exercise as those in the lowest greenery category.

It also suggested that participants in exercise programmes based in outdoor green environments are more likely to continue with their programme than if it is based within a gym or leisure centre. Where people have good perceived and/or actual access to green space they were 24% more likely to be physically active.

People living in areas with high levels of greenery are thought to be three times more likely to be physically active and 40% less likely to be overweight or obese than those living in areas with low levels of greenery.

A brisk walk every day is thought to have the potential to reduce the risk of heart attacks by 50%, strokes by 50%, diabetes by 50%, fracture of the femur by 30%, colon cancer by 30%, breast cancer by 30% and Alzheimer’s by 25%.

Scientific evidence increasingly indicates that in addition to health benefits, for example the prevention of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity, physical activity also can extend years of independent living, reduce disability and overall has the significant potential to impact upon the quality of life of all older people.

Studies indicate that natural views of elements such as trees and lakes can promote a drop in blood pressure and are shown to reduce feelings of stress.

An increasing number of groups inthe UK are also being set up for community food growing, creating opportunities for exercise through gardening activities, as well as increasing knowledge of better diet and nutrition through the growing of fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs.

Research has revealed that those living in more deprived communities, who tend to have poorer health and suffer from the kind of illnesses that can be alleviated by regular exposure to green spaces, are also less likely to have good access to high quality parks and green spaces.

Studies have also indicated that patients recovering from surgery, recover faster, need fewer strong drugs for pain, and have fewer minor complications if they have a room with a window that overlooks green environments such as trees, grass and water.

Mental health8

Access to the natural environment can also have positive effects on mental health.

Improving the environment in which people live can make healthy lifestyles easier. It is also thought that the environment we live in is one of the influences on our social and cognitive development, self-esteem, confidence, personal resilience and well-being, which impacts on our health and our life chances.

Clinical evidence suggests that exposure to an outdoor green environment can considerably reduces stress . Simply viewing nature it is thought can produce significant recovery or restoration from stress within three to five minutes.

48% of interviewees in the 2010 study Community Green: Using local spaces to tackle inequality and improve health thought thought pleasant local green spaces would improve their mental health. 9

Within the field of care for the elderly, studies show that patients exposed to outdoor green environments often became happier, slept better, were less restless, more talkative, and needed less medication. A study showed that a green environment often improved both self-esteem and mood. In this the study the mentally-ill had one of the greatest self-esteem improvements.

Research has shown that Alzheimer’s patients with regular access to a garden are often less troubled by negative reactions and fits of anger than those without access to a garden.

Studies have also indicated that where workplaces include trees, employees tend to be more productive and have a greater sense of job satisfaction.

94% of those who took part in Mind green exercise activities commented that they had benefitted their mental health.

Horticultural therapy 10

Contact with plants and participation in horticultural activities is thought to bring a wide range of benefits to a diverse demographic. It is thought that it can enhance self-esteem, self-confidence, social and communication skills whilst also improving stamina, coordination and balance. A large number of parks authorities, community-managed farms and gardens run horticulture therapy projects for a wide variety of clients – from those recovering from addiction to those from excluded groups such as minority ethnic communities or those with disabilities.

Reducing inequalities

The Marmot Review suggests that there is a social gradient for access to green spaces with people in lower socio-economic groups accessing green spaces less than those in higher groups. 11

Several large-scale observational studies have shown a positive correlation between greater access to green spaces and reduced health inequalities.

A UK study of 336,348 patient records showed significantly smaller differences in health inequality between highest and lowest income-deprived groups in areas with more green space than between these groups in similar areas with less green space. For example, the all-cause mortality rate for the most income deprived quartile was about double that of the least deprived (ratio 1·93 (95% CI 1·86–2·01)) in the least green areas, whereasit was only about 40% higher (ratio 1·43 (1·34–1·53)) in the most green areas. For circulatory diseases, the ratio was 2·19 (2·04–2·34) in the least green areas and 1·54 (1·38–1·73) in the most green. 12

figure 1 - relationship between deprivation and exposure_to_green_spaces for cardiovascular deaths bar graph


Figure 1: Relationship between Deprivation and Exposure to Green Spaces for Cardiovascular Deaths 13

Green Spaces and Satisfaction with Place and Social Capital

There is some evidence that parks and gardens can promote increased communal interaction between different groups of people as well as other social and community benefits.

Observational and qualitative studies in urban areas have shown associations between access to green spaces and:

  • Positive effects on social interaction and cohesion in differentage groups, by providing inclusive places to meet 14 15
  • Increases in social interaction indicators (eg. knowing neighbours). 16

Project evaluations and observational studies indicate that natural environments can also provide opportunities to increase volunteering and community participation and community satisfaction indicators. 17 18

Study carried out by European Centre for Environment and Human Health - Would you be happier living in a greener urban area? 19

A study carried out by European Centre for Environment and Human Health draws on 18 years of panel data from over 10,000 participants  in the UK to explore the self-reported psychological health of individuals over time and the relationship between urban green space, wellbeing and mental distress. Findings suggest that urban green space can deliver significant benefits for mental wellbeing.

Data was derived from the British Household Panel Survey, a nationally representative longitudinal survey of households in the UK that ran annually from 1991-2008, containing over 5,000 households and 10,000 individual adults.

The survey asked participants two simple questions with respect to their well-being: how satisfied are they with their life in general, and whether they were suffering from symptoms of depression or anxiety. To quantify the amount of green space in an area, the team referred to the Generalised Land Use Database, which classifies land use at high geographical resolution across the UK.

After analysing the data, the team found that as green space increased within a 2.5-mile radius of a particular household, the residents reported higher levels of well-being. This suggests that people are happier when living in urban areas with greater amounts of green space. Compared to instances when they live in areas with less green space they show significantly lower mental distress and significantly higher wellbeing.

The analysis also compared the beneficial effects of green space with other factors which influence wellbeing. In comparative terms, living in an area with higher levels of green space was associated with improvements in wellbeing indicators roughly equal to a third of that gained from being married, or a tenth as large as being employed vs. unemployed.

These effects emerge controlling for other differences at the different time points such as income, employment status, marital status, health, housing type and local area level variables, such as crime rates.

Urbanisation is considered a potential threat to mental health and wellbeing and although effects at the individual level are small, this study indicates that the potential benefit at a population level should be an important consideration in policies aiming to protect and promote urban green spaces for wellbeing.


According to a survey carried out by Natural England in 2009:

  • Fewer than a quarter of children regularly use their local ‘patch of nature’, compared to over half of all adults when they were children. 21
  • Fewer than one in ten children regularly play in wild places; compared to almost half a generation ago. 22

Also, a report by the National Trust stated that Children are unfamiliar with some of our commonest wild creatures. According to a 2008 National Trust survey, one in three could not identify a magpie; half could not tell the difference between a bee and a wasp.  23

There is evidence to suggest that this sedentary, indoor lifestyle is having negative consequences for children’s health.

Observational/qualitative studies have suggested benefits of the natural environment for physical activity in children:

  • Increased accessible urban green space is associated with increased amounts of play for local children. 24
  • More use of natural environments increased physical activity during play. 25
  • Natural features, such as trees or hedges, can improve levels of creative play as well as play between different groups. 26
  • Children playing in natural environments appeared to have improved concentration and motor skills than those playing in non-green environments. 27

Child psychologist Aric Sigman found that children exposed to nature scored higher on concentration and self-discipline; improved their awareness, reasoning and observational skills; did better in reading, writing, maths, science and social studies; were better at working in teams; and showed improved behaviour overall. 28

Studies also indicate that:

  • Children with ADHD can concentrate on schoolwork and similar tasks better than usual after taking part in activities in green settings, such as walking through or playing in a park.
  • Children’s self-discipline can be improved by 20% by simply having views of trees and vegetation outside their homes. This mainly affects girls and is related to better concentration even when adjusted for all other factors.
  • Greenness is inversely associated with the BMI z-scores of children and youth at 2 years

Green Space and the Quality of the Environment

Reduces flooding – Observational studies suggest a lower risk of flooding in areas with high levels of green spaces. 29 30

1.3 million trees would catch seven billion tons of rainwater each year, reducing the load on storm water drainage and consequent flooding.  31


Reduces noise – a belt of trees can reduce noise levels by as much as 6–8 decibels for every 30 metres width of woodland. 32  


Reduces urban ‘heat islands’ – modelling studies suggest that creating 10% more green cover in urban areas could keep temperatures to only 1°C above current levels despite global warming. 33


Reduces pollution – a modelling study of 5 U.S. cities estimated that 1.3 million trees would remove 2535 tonnes of pollutants from the air each year. 34


Air Quality 35

The plant life and trees found within urban parks and green space play an important role in improving the air quality in urban environments and reducing pollutants

  • The canopies of trees act as a physical filter for pollution.
  • Trees have been shown to remove substantial quantities of particle matter in the air on an average summer’s day.
  • It has been estimated that woodland can reduce concentrations of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide in the air by 4-5%.

A tree’s ability to offset carbon emissions is determined by size, canopy cover, health, and age, but large trees can help lower carbon emissions in the atmosphere by 2-3%.

An 80-foot beech tree has been shown to remove daily carbon dioxide amounts equivalent to that produced by two single-family dwellings.

In the right circumstances, when trees are strategically planted to provide either shade or to act as wind breaks, they can generate 10-50% savings in cooling expenses and 4-22% savings of heating costs. This reduces the amount of carbon-based fuels used and therefore reducing the emissions that reduce air quality.

Economic Value

Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and Green Space Scotland have suggested that green spaces can have potential economic benefits for an area, especially in urban areas. This includes public health, as well as urban regeneration and encouraging inward investment. 36 37  38

Research for Natural England concluded that if the population were afforded equitable good access to green space, the estimated saving to the health service could be in the order of £2.1 billion per annum in England alone. 39

Through easy and affordable access to recreational opportunities, and the growing use of GP referral schemes, parks can play a valuable role in reducing otherwise expensive treatments, saving the health service millions.

  • Regents Park provides opportunity for physical activity and saves £3.1million and £463,000 to the economy and NHS respectively each year 40
  • The health value of Denver’s park system has been calculated at £65m and this only relates to the value that can be derived from active lifestyles: the wellbeing assessment and the value in combating depression and dementia is not included. 41
  • The ‘Parks Health Benefits Calculator’ was applied to Sacramento’s city residents where it was found that because 78,000 residents engage actively enough in parks to improve their health – 72,000 of them under 65 years old and 6,000 older - the medical savings realised in 2007 could be estimated to achieve a value of $19,872,000. 42
Bath and North East Somerset

Green Infrastructure and Spaces

The Council manages and maintains 50 hectares of formal parkland as well as 200 hectares of public open space, and highway verges. Included within this are parks, recreation grounds and public open spaces, floral displays, allotments, trees, woodland and parks and open spaces events. 43

There are over 900km of Public Rights of Way criss-crossing the countryside and towns of Bath & North East Somerset. 44

In the Voicebox Surveys carried out by the council between 2008 -2011 the environmental service that received the highest satisfaction rating (along with the garden waste collection) was parks and open spaces. 45

The Council values the natural environment very highly and is committed through Council Vision and Values and the Draft Core Strategy to maintaining and improving it. The Green Infrastructure Strategy provides a framework to work with partners and the community to make the most of the benefits that the natural environment can and should be providing for people, places and nature within and beyond the district. 46

The goal is that by 2026 that the local communities in Bath and North East Somerset will be connected by a network of green spaces and corridors which provide attractive spaces for play, recreation, relaxation, reflection, education and the growing food. Furthermore, it is hoped that all residents will benefit from the use and enjoyment of this network in some form or another. 47

Biodiversity 48

The Bristol Regional Environmental Records Centre (BRERC) provides basic statistics about the local species, habitats and protected sites for which records are held.

Studies published back in 1990 indicate that only 6% of Bath and North East Somerset was characterised with semi-natural habitat of high wildlife value. This is quite a low figure compared with the national average and very low compared with the rest of Europe.

The semi-natural habitats that do remain are typically small and are often isolated from each other. This reduces their wildlife value and viability since it is harder for most species to survive and flourish in small isolated sites.

It can be assumed that the national picture of decline in species numbers and range, and in the extent and quality of natural habitats is replicated here.

Of the good semi-natural habitats that do remain, the key components include:

  • semi-natural ancient woodlands
  • grasslands
  • river corridors
  • standing waters
  • ancient species-rich hedgerows
  • post-industrial sites

Many of these habitats are designated as Sites of Nature Conservation Importance (SNCIs).

Bath and North East Somerset is home to 4 of the 23 species on the European Protected Species (EPS) list and 14 of the 18 bats on the EPS list. 49

Existing and emerging planning policy documents for the district include policies to protect and enhance local biodiversity and emerging policies are designed to meet the requirements of the National Planning Policy Framework. 50

Ecosystem Services

Whilst we do not yet have specific and systematic data for the Bath and North East area about the condition of our ecosystem services it is likely that the national trends prevail.

There are plans to map and review the key ecosystem services across Bath and North East Somerset and neighbouring districts through the work of the Local Nature Partnership Pilot and the Bristol Avon River Catchment Pilot. 51

What can we realistically change?

Recommendations from the Faculty of Public Health 52

  • Local authorities should provide more accessible green spaces and open-air leisure facilities in which children, families, adults and older people can safely play and exercise.
  • Local strategic partnerships, especially those in urban areas, should explore ways of maximising the use of available green space for promoting health and wellbeing among all groups and communities
  • Local strategic partnerships should explore how best to develop and maintain the public health and economic benefits of green spaces, particularly in urban areas.
  • GPs should make more use of alternatives to medication for mental illness, including advice to spend time and exercise in green spaces
  • Exercise prescription schemes in general practice should encourage and incorporate physical activity in green spaces.
  • Programmes, such as Walking for Health and others, which encourage physical activity in green spaces and natural environments should continue to be fully supported.