The vital impact of parks and green spaces on health and well-being
by Bernard Sheridan, consultant, APSE (green space specialist)

Ever had that feeling of peace and tranquillity in natural surroundings, or longed for it when you brave the hectic city streets? That’s the ‘biophilia effect’.

W.B. Yeats nailed it in his poem the Lake Isle of Innisfree - “I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; while I stand on the roadway or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”

The concept of biophilia was first used by the German psychologist Erich Fromm, for the instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems, which he considered part of the human ‘state of being’.

The term is arising more frequently in common usage, with many of the world’s great cities, including Birmingham in the UK, now acclaimed as ‘Biophilic Cities’, and even the Icelandic musical visionary, Bjork, devoting an album and performances to the concept. So what is it, and why is it important to green space professionals?


Native wildflowers sown in a natural open space

In the 1990’s Dr William Bird, a family GP from Berkshire started investigating biophilia following concerns about some of his patients who were finding it difficult to motivate themselves to exercise. He was aware of early research about health and green space and was so convinced of the efficacy of walking and taking exercise in parks and green spaces, as separate from the gym, that he collated together all available research to support his belief that nature is good for your health.

In 2007 he published a synopsis of his findings in his report for the RSPB and Natural England, Natural Thinking and his conclusions showed clearly that there was convincing evidence for the beneficial impact of being in green space on both physical and mental health. He started the Health Walk and Green Gym movements, which have spread across the world. In 2010 he was awarded an MBE for his work.

The evidence shows that merely being in good quality green space, even for only fifteen minutes, results in lowered blood pressure, reduced blood toxin levels, reduced stress, improved cognitive performance and enhanced memory retention; any physical exercise taken is a bonus.


Grass left to grow, first year

Hospital patients overlooking green spaces and gardens recover quicker, have fewer complications and require less pain relief than those overlooking buildings or car parks.
The exact mechanism for this effect was not known but the research identified three main theories, none of which exclude the others, to explain how these underpinning health benefits work.

The Biophilia Hypothesis, proposed by the eminent biologist, Edward O. Wilson (who coined the term ‘biodiversity’) suggests that humans are genetically ‘hard-wired’ to be more contented and function better in natural environments, both physiologically, emotionally and cognitively.

He explains this is due to humankind evolving over hundreds of thousands of years, living with, depending on, and eventually manipulating nature, compared with the relatively miniscule time we have lived in urban environments.

Attention Restoration Theory proposes that compared with ‘hard’ indoor or urban environments, natural environments are more effective in allowing our brains to recharge and recover what is termed ‘direct attention’ or concentrated focus on a particular task. Concentration-demanding duties such as writing reports, developing spreadsheets, accounts, driving, studying etc. can be hard work and are important, but often uninteresting. They can soon tire the brain leading to negative symptoms such as displacement activity, distraction, irritability, anxiety and emotional reactivity. Being present in good quality green space helps our brains recover from fatigue, and this effect is currently recognised in many school’s activity plans

The third theory was the Psychological Stress Recovery Theory regarding the clear evidence for reduced blood pressure, pulse rate, blood stress-toxin levels, muscle tension and anxiety in people and patients within fifteen minutes of being present in green space. Like the biophilia explanation, this effect was thought to be the result of deep-seated genetic hard-wiring.

This effect even worked, to a lesser extent, when participants in trials were shown pictures or videos of landscapes. Interestingly, the most effective pictures at producing this effect showed undulating grassland, dotted with trees, a body of water, and evidence of human habitation, such as paths or a mid-distant dwelling.


Long grass at Kew Gardens

Dr. Bird has continued his work and research and has presented to a number of seminars and forums recently, including the 2015 APSE Environmental Services Seminar.

He explained that humankind has evolved slowly over the last hundred thousand years, and for all that time we had to work closely with nature, understanding plants, animals, the land and water and the changing weather and seasons. For a mere fraction of that time, we have been living in urban environments. Even though towns and cities emerged about five thousand years ago there was, even then, reasonably close contact with nature; modern industrial urban environments are only a few hundred years old at most, and today’s high-tech urban living is now practically divorced from contact with nature. Now, 54% of the world’s population live in cities.

Meanwhile the human psyche and physique, which evolved for hunting and gathering, cannot keep pace with this rapid change. Is this disconnection with nature the underlying cause of the epidemics of obesity and other chronic diseases?

Dr Bird and many in the medical community believe this is obviously so. The widespread disconnection from nature, increasing loneliness, and living in hostile urban environments along with feelings of purposelessness and rejection from society gives rise to underlying chronic inflammation of the immune system –‘the cause of causes’


Was there ever any need to cut this grass?

This chronic inflammation which arises in children as young as six years old is linked to chronic stress and is a precursor of the diseases of modern living, including obesity, cancer, cardio-vascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, anxiety and depression. The pathway seems clear -chronic inflammation causes stress, leading to ‘comfort’ over-eating and physical inactivity which causes build-up of visceral fat. Visceral fat is an underlying factor in all these conditions and its presence increases mortality risk. These conditions all feedback on each other and can have a multiplier effect –visceral fat can cause further inflammation leading to more stress and so on.

Treatments geared to weight loss alone are insufficient as visceral fat can remain untouched, despite losing weight by dieting. By contrast visceral fat can reduce markedly after physical activity even though body weight remains the same.

The precise mechanism, for the medically-minded, seems to be as follows-visceral fat requires physical activity to reduce it -contracting muscle acts almost like a gland by secreting anti-inflammatory myokines; (Google it!) myokines release lactoferrin that switches off the immune system after a high fat high sugar meal. This means that the energy is retained by the brain and does not inflame the immune system, resulting in releases of brain-derived neurotrophic factor which fights harmful neuro-generative processes; this reduces the onset of Type 2 Diabetes, increases connectivity between neurones and improves mitochondrial function in the brain. In short, physical activity is fundamental to health and human survival and reduces the impact of chronic inflammation and stress.


So, why do we need healthy landscapes, and why does nature make us less stressed? As outlined previously, both the body and mind benefit from the ‘biophilia effect’ in green spaces -we are reconnected with nature and, very quickly, our chronic stress levels are reduced. There are the direct effects of nature on the brain; in good green space there are less bad things, less noise, pollution, excess heat, poor aesthetics and more enjoyment and opportunities for physical activity and social interaction. This means that the benefits of any physical activity in green spaces are significantly heightened.


Eye-catching annual flowers on a Leicestershire highway

However, research has shown that, as previously mentioned, the benefits of the biophilia effect depend greatly on the quality of green space. Not unexpectedly, evidence reveals our preference for sites to be readily accessible, pleasant, welcoming and appropriately maintained -free from urban nasties such as litter, vandalism damage and graffiti. People need to feel safe, unthreatened and comfortable. There needs to be variation and variety in landform, features, planting and terrain; with colour, texture and naturalness, but with sufficiently clear arrangement and vistas, and with places of shelter to prevent it being a threatening wilderness.

The implications for health services, schools, universities and mental health carers of the phenomenon of improved physical health, mental wellbeing and happiness, through connection with nature and outdoor exercise, is only just beginning to register. The impact on education services and child physical and cognitive development, on tackling the obesity and diabetes crisis, and on the caring professions should be profound. Every year, more research exposes the amazing healing and health-supporting properties of green spaces yet, somehow, every year parks and green spaces become more politically invisible and their importance declines.

Dr Bird is about to publish a book of his collected wisdom and findings, The Oxford Textbook of Nature and Public Health, and his experience in promoting active lifestyles and building active communities. It is likely to be, and deserves to be, a game-changer for the green space sector. It will provide clear evidence for the sector to promote , and I urge all professionals and enthusiasts to familiarise themselves with, and take on board its important message -and then use it to promote the role of quality green spaces and physical activity throughout society.

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