A new report from the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) titled “Nature for Health and Equity,” cites Nature as an under-recognized healer that offers multiple health benefits, ranging from allergy and obesity reduction to increases in self-esteem. The report’s 11 researchers spent the last year reviewing over 200 academic studies for the study, representing the most expansive look yet into the relationships between health, nature and wellbeing.
As the report states, “According to a growing body of evidence, health inequalities are linked to access to Nature.” These inequalities affect all the stages of life: pre-birth, childhood, adult life and old age. It found that city dwellers living in low-income areas suffered the most, having less access to Nature via parks and open space, and being under the increasing pressure of urbanization and development. Danish people living more than 1 km from green space, for instance, were more likely to be obese and less likely to exercise rigorously than those living closer than 300 m (Toftager et al., 2011). The report also pointed to an obvious solution for urban planners: “Living in areas with green spaces significantly reduces income-related health inequalities, counteracting the effect of deprivation.”
The study cites numerous findings pointing to the benefits of living closer to open space: Middle-aged Scottish men with homes in poor but green areas had a death rate 16% lower than their more urban counterparts. Another study conducted in Bradford, England showed that pregnant women were also beneficiaries of Nature’s “booster shot,” recording not only lower blood pressures, but giving birth to larger babies.
“The evidence is strong and growing that people and communities can only thrive when they have access to Nature,” said Robbie Blake, a Nature campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, which commissioned the analysis.
Access to, and activities in, Nature have been shown to improve self-reported well-being in disadvantaged groups, which can contribute to improved mental health. In one study, even short exercise activities done in green areas can show an increase in the self-esteem and mood of participants. People with pre-existing mental health conditions could particularly benefit from this increase.
Seniors also benefit from immersion in Nature. Green space in urban environments, for instance, was shown to be associated with long-term reductions in mortality, especially those related to air pollution.
The report concludes with a call for accelerating the integration of natural and social concerns across policy areas, and for a commitment to natural access in urban policy. Under these recommendations, no citizen would be further than 300 meters (~1000 feet) from some type of green open space. It also calls on healthcare professionals to consider nature-based solutions for health and equality, citing natural treatments as a way to reduce public sector expenditure and citizens’ costs on health.