- A recent paper by Sandifer et al (2015) explores the opportunities to enhance health and biodiversity conservation.
- Evidence links biodiversity to ecosystem services (ES) and health to nature exposure.
- A few novel studies link biodiversity exposure to improved health and well-being.
- We provide a comprehensive summary of health effects of ES, nature and biodiversity.
- Future research should address causation of health benefits and action mechanisms.
- New multidisciplinary collaborations are needed to enhance health and conservation.
We are at a key juncture in history where biodiversity loss is occurring daily and accelerating in the face of population growth, climate change, and rampant development. Simultaneously, we are just beginning to appreciate the wealth of human health benefits that stem from experiencing nature and biodiversity. Here we assessed the state of knowledge on relationships between human health and nature and biodiversity, and prepared a comprehensive listing of reported health effects. We found strong evidence linking biodiversity with production of ecosystem services and between nature exposure and human health, but many of these studies were limited in rigor and often only correlative. Much less information is available to link biodiversity and health. However, some robust studies indicate that exposure to microbial biodiversity can improve health, specifically in reducing certain allergic and respiratory diseases. Overall, much more research is needed on mechanisms of causation. Also needed are a re-envisioning of land-use planning that places human well-being at the center and a new coalition of ecologists, health and social scientists and planners to conduct research and develop policies that promote human interaction with nature and biodiversity. Improvements in these areas should enhance human health and ecosystem, community, as well as human resilience.
Human health and well-being can be considered the ultimate or cumulative ecosystem service (Sandifer and Sutton-Grier, 2014). For medical practitioners and the public, health often is thought of narrowly as the absence of disease. However, the World Health Organization (WHO, 1946) defines health much more broadly as “…a state of physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Health, or health and well-being, are also described as including a supportive environment, personal security, freedom of choice, social relationships, adequate employment and income, access to educational resources, and cultural identity (Diaz et al., 2006 and MA (Millennium Assessment), 2005). Here we use these latter definitions to encompass the breadth of factors that together comprise human health and well-being.
Just as we are beginning to appreciate the variety and complexity of human health benefits that stem from experiencing nature and, more specifically, biodiversity, we are reaching a critical point in human history where biodiversity and habitat losses are accelerating due to increased human use, climate change, and rampant development. Strengthening the focus of nascent science efforts in this area on a much deeper understanding of nature–biodiversity–ecosystem service–health linkages could play a critical role in supporting growing policy efforts to incorporate more natural areas and biodiversity in the design and protection of our cities and coastal communities, with concomitant public health benefits.
In this paper, we explore observed and potential connections among nature, biodiversity, ecosystem services and human health and well-being, through biodiversity–ecosystem services linkages, associations of nature with human health, and recent limited evidence relating biodiversity to some human health outcomes based on a review of selected literature. We used the generally accepted definition of nature as the physical and biological world not manufactured or developed by people. We were interested in the health effects of human exposure to natural elements such as plants and other living things, natural areas including coastlines and mountains, natural and semi-natural environments such as parks and managed forests and wildlife sanctuaries, and undeveloped landscapes, seascapes and, in some cases, even agricultural lands. Biodiversity was also defined broadly. Based on language from the Convention on Biological Diversity (United Nations, 1992), Duffy et al. (2013) described biodiversity as “the variety of life, encompassing variation at all levels, from the genes within a species to biologically created habitat within ecosystems.” Nature is not biodiversity, nor a proxy for biodiversity, but certainly encompasses biodiversity. Ecosystem services are the specific benefits people derive from nature (MA (Millennium Assessment), 2005).
We concentrated on reported and potential values of exposure to natural elements, ecosystem services, and biodiversity, to human health and well-being. In general, we noted a lack of studies that identifiedcausality and specific mechanisms by which either nature (often meaning green space, particularly urban green space) or biodiversity supports ecological functioning and hence, the provisioning of all ecosystem services and human health and well-being ( Cardinale et al., 2012). Thus, with one major exception discussed here, the actual roles of biodiversity in promoting human health and well-being remain largely uncertain. We addressed the following questions: (1) How important is biodiversity to the provision of ecosystem services? (2) Is there convincing evidence that experiencing more natural settings, even briefly or vicariously, can improve psychological and physical health? (3) Does exposure to biodiverse surroundings result in measurable health responses? (4) Can biodiversity provide humans and animals protection from infectious and/or allergic and inflammatory diseases? (5) Is there evidence that experiencing coastal nature or marine biodiversity has health effects? Based on our findings, we suggest that new research and policy strategies, involving collaboration among ecological, environmental health, biomedical, and conservation scientists as well as urban, land and coastal planners, and social scientists, are needed to make critical progress toward answering these and related questions. We conclude with ideas for key components of those strategies and recommendations for a way forward.
The Landscape Institute published their ‘Public Health and Landscape: Creating healthy places‘ Position Statement which introduces five principles of healthy places.
- Healthy places improve air, water and soil quality, incorporating measures that help us adapt to, and where possible mitigate, climate change
- Healthy places help overcome health inequalities and can promote healthy lifestyles
- Healthy places make people feel comfortable and at ease, increasing social interaction and reducing anti-social behaviour, isolation and stress
- Healthy places optimise opportunities for working, learning and development
- Healthy places are restorative, uplifting and healing for both physical and mental health conditions