Urban green space is a necessary component for delivering healthy, sustainable and liveable cities. Green space interventions deliver positive health, social and environmental outcomes for all population groups – particularly among lower socioeconomic status groups. There are few other public health interventions that can achieve this.
The recent World Health Organisation’s report Urban green space interventions and health: A review of impacts and effectiveness. Full report (2017) notes that interventions on green space in urban settings can help address public health issues related to obesity, cardiovascular effects, mental health and well-being. However, knowledge on their effectiveness in relation to health, well-being and equity is incomplete.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), in 2016, published an evidence review on the health impacts of urban green spaces. Urban green spaces and health – a review of evidence (2016). This report summarizes the health benefits, discusses pathways to health and evaluates health-relevant indicators of urban green space. Such indicators enable local authorities and urban planners to assess in which urban areas green space accessibility should be improved, and to establish respective planning decisions.
What are the most effective ways to deliver urban interventions on green spaces, and how can we guarantee that the environmental, social and health benefits are maximized while potential side effects are prevented or reduced? WHO has compiled:
- available research evidence on urban green space interventions and their impacts;
- local green space intervention case studies and lessons learned;
- existing Impact Assessment experiences on green space planning.
Results indicate that urban green space is necessary to deliver healthy, sustainable and liveable cities. Interventions to increase or improve urban green space can deliver positive health, social and environmental outcomes for all population groups, particularly among lower socioeconomic status groups. There are very few other public health interventions that can achieve all of this, and especially the impact on active lifestyles, mental well-being and social interaction is frequently highlighted as a key benefit. Yet, there is a need for better inclusion of health and equity outcomes in studies on green space interventions, and an improved monitoring of local green space management and related health and equity impacts. It is equally important to note that there is little evidence available on the unintended side effects of urban green space interventions.
Urban green space interventions seem to be most effective when a physical improvement to the green space is coupled with a social engagement/participation element that promotes the green space and reaches out to new target groups. Evidence shows that multidisciplinary and cross-sectoral collaborations help to ensure that urban green space interventions deliver on multiple outcomes and provide a variety of functional opportunities that attract different population groups.
Urban green space interventions need to be planned and designed with the local community and the intended green space users thus ensuring benefits for the local residents and the delivery of interventions that serve the needs of the community – especially in deprived areas.
As green space interventions need to be considered as long-term investments, they need to be integrated within local development policies and frameworks (e.g. urban masterplans, housing regulations, transport policies, sustainability and biodiversity strategies). This requires continued political support within local government, and the general understanding that urban green spaces go beyond environmental or ecological objectives and also deliver social and health benefits that increase the quality of life and well-being of all urban residents.
Urban Green Space Interventions and Health: A review of impacts and effectiveness – Report Conclusions
Green space should be available to all residents as a part of their daily surroundings. This applies to both small-scale and large-scale green spaces, irrespective of categorizations into private or public spaces or functionalities. Be it the remote view of green space within the neighbourhood, the passive exposure to green space by having a walk by the river or taking a break in a park, or the active use of green spaces through e.g. play, leisure or gardening – all kinds of urban green space should be promoted through urban planning and governance across all sectors
Multidisciplinary and cross-sectoral collaborations will help to ensure that urban green space interventions deliver on multiple outcomes. Urban green space interventions are most effective when a dual approach is adopted where a physical improvement to the environment is coupled with a social engagement/participation element promoting the use of the green space.
Urban green space interventions need to be situated within the overall context of the urban area and integrated within the relevant strategies, frameworks and plans (e.g. urban masterplans, health and transport policies, sustainability and biodiversity strategies). Good design, implementation and maintenance of urban green space interventions will mitigate any potential adverse outcomes from the intervention and maximize their benefits.
Urban green space interventions need to be planned and designed with the local community and the intended green space users. This will ensure the derivation of benefits for the local community and will aid the delivery of interventions that serve the needs of the community – especially in deprived areas.
“We believe that greater priority needs to be given to prevention of ill health in public health and social care. All those involved in creating healthy places – public health professionals, planners and landscape architects – need to recognise that landscape has enormous potential to improve our health and wellbeing.”
Source: Honold, J., Lakes, T., Beyer, R. & van der Meer, E. (2015). Restoration in Urban Spaces: Nature Views From Home, Greenways, and Public Parks. Environment and Behavior. 1-30. DOI: 10.1177/0013916514568556.
Urban nature — such as trees and public parks — is beneficial to human health. A number of studies have found that living close to nature can have immediate positive effects on mental and physical health. However, the longer term health impact of urban nature remains poorly understood. This study investigated how exposure to nature affects health in residents of two inner city neighbourhoods in Berlin. The researchers investigated the links between different kinds of urban nature, including green spaces and views of vegetation from the home, and health. To do this, they assessed life satisfaction, perceived general health and levels of cortisol — commonly known as the stress hormone — in hair samples from 32 participants.
Changed patterns of cortisol in the blood have been linked to depression and psychological stress. Over time, elevated levels of cortisol suppress the immune system and can therefore also contribute to other illness. The authors hypothesised that the amount and diversity of vegetation visible from the home would affect health. They also thought that more regular use of public green spaces could encourage better health.
They found that views of vegetation from the home (as assessed by photographs) and the use of green spaces (determined by interview) were linked to the amount of cortisol in participants’ hair. Participants’ hair cortisol levels were lowest when their view was of both a high vegetation quantity and diversity. No significant link was found between the view from the home and self-reported general health or life satisfaction.
When assessing the use of green spaces, the researchers found one of the most frequently visited areas to be a local canal with a highly vegetated trail. People who used this trail at least once a week had significantly lower cortisol levels than less frequent users and reported higher life satisfaction, although they did not differ in general health.
Overall, this study suggests that exposure to urban nature in different forms could be related to lower cortisol levels and better life satisfaction, which corresponds with findings made in other countries and continents.
These results provide important considerations for urban development and suggest that adding diverse vegetation to residential streets and backyards, and developing more urban greenways, has the potential to improve human health. The authors recommend that local authorities use this information when designing sustainable and healthy urban areas.
While the authors do note limitations to the study, including sample size, the methods used to analyse vegetation and the extent to which cortisol correlates with stress and health outcomes, their findings have been reinforced by other research. They also propose that hair cortisol analysis could provide a promising new health indicator for future research.
The Dalston Eastern Curve Garden in east London is a thriving community garden, developed on a small piece of derelict railway land by landscape architects J & L Gibbons, with muf art/architecture and Exyzt. The video shows some of the improvements in community health and wellbeing that the garden has brought, providing an oasis in the heart of a busy, noisy, high-density part of the city, where public green space is severely lacking.
This is the first in a series of Landscape Institute videos on landscape and health, featuring some of the landscape projects that illustrated the 2013 publication ‘Public health and landscape: creating healthy places’.