In 2013, the European Environment Agency (EEA) published a report called Environment and Human Health which highlights and reviews what they conclude are the most significant impacts of our environment on our health. The report covers topics we expect to see such as water quality, air quality and climate change. But with increasing population numbers and densities, urban expansion and industrial development, it also emphasises the importance of having access to natural green spaces.
The growing recognition of multiple factors behind major public health issues, such as obesity, cancer, mental illness, and other chronic diseases, as well as the ageing of the European population, has generated an increasing interest in the role of residential environments and access to green spaces.
In summary, the EEA advises that access to natural, green environments can offer multiple benefits to physical health, mental and social well-being and improved quality of life. As we might expect, available data suggest that people with better access to a green environment are more likely to be physically active and have a reduced tendency to become overweight. However, there are many more critical benefits which we need to recognise.
The EEA report refers to numerous health and environment studies identifying issues associated with poor health for populations who don’t have adequate access to a healthy environment. Some studies for example have linked poor health with high pollution levels (polluted water or air), poor quality housing, limited access to green space and generally degraded environments. In particular, green space has been shown to contribute to reducing health inequalities. Access to green space has also been shown to increase longevity and social interaction among urban senior citizens.
In addition to physical health benefits, further studies have shown that contact with nature can improve psychological well-being and social cohesion among all members of society. Access to safe green-spaces and contact with wildlife has been shown to be particularly beneficial for exploratory mental and social development of children and young people, in both urban and rural settings. Contact with nature, or even views of nature from hospital beds, can speed up recovery time for patients and for others can have a positive impact on stress and fatigue.
Green spaces have been closely linked with neighbourhood identity and safe, accessible green spaces have been shown to encourage activities across different social groups as well as increasing the satisfaction of residents within the area and reducing levels of anti-social behaviour. Community gardens, parks and other common areas provide space for recreation, facilitate neighbourhood improvement, and strengthen a sense of community and connection to the environment, thus contributing to improved health and well-being.
The role of urban allotment gardens in food provision is also important, especially in the context of food sustainability and promotion of locally-grown food. There is also a value in (re)connecting urban citizens with nature, and increasing everyone’s awareness of the value of nature and ecosystems services. Furthermore, greening the urban environment plays an important role in the context of climate change, increased biodiversity, protection against air pollution (by absorbing particulates, heavy metals, gases etc.), reducing the effects of noise pollution, flood control and prevention of soil erosion as well as regulating our micro-climate.
In 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment introduced the concept of Ecosystem Services. This concept linked human health and well-being to biodiversity and the functioning of ecosystems. The assessment identified a range of services provided to us by our ecosystems e.g. provisioning services (e.g. food, fibre), regulating and supporting services (e.g. nutrient, water and carbon cycling) and cultural services (e.g. recreational opportunities). Well-functioning ecosystems thus contribute in multiple ways to human health and well‑being.
In light of the many critical links between green spaces, ecosystems, biodiversity and human health highlighted above, the European Commission released their Green Infrastructure Strategy in 2013 aimed at improving the provision and quality of green spaces across its member states. In County Monaghan, we are lucky to be living in a relatively high quality, natural, rural environment. However, the facts above emphasise the importance of retaining and enhancing the quality and use of our existing green spaces as well as planning and creating additional new spaces which are accessible to the public and provide a range of uses and benefits. This is particularly important around our towns and villages and in the context of the development of residential areas.