A while ago a joiner was doing some work in our flat, and asked me what I did for a living. I explained that among other things, I’m working on a research project about how green spaces enhance our wellbeing.
Of course they do, he snorted. Everybody knows that. His tone suggested it was ridiculous for anyone to spend money researching something so obvious. Nevertheless plenty of researchers and institutions are doing exactly that.
One reason for this plethora of research is the notion that if we could work out exactly how green spaces are good for us, we could find ways to reduce the money we spend on healthcare. The concept of a ‘dose of nature’, put crudely, suggests that being outside and connecting with the natural environment could be an alternative, or a supplement, to treatments for everything from heart disease to mental illness.
There are at least three difficulties, however. The first is that the relationships between nature and wellbeing are not linear. The ‘dose of nature’ idea risks reducing ‘nature’ to a variable that can be manipulated. But people have very different ideas of what ‘nature’ is – and a municipal park, arguably, is not the most ‘natural’ of spaces.
The Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature project has found that people respond positively to trees, birdsong, flowers, animals and skies – but these responses aren’t uniform. We’ve found, too, that people’s connections with nature vary according to childhood experiences and memories. They are also mediated by connections with other people: some prefer to experience ‘nature’ in solitude, others in company; and many need some organised assistance to encounter the natural world at all.
The second difficulty lies with the rationale for the ‘dose of nature’ argument. It is taken for granted that we all want better value from healthcare spending. But behind this is an unstated assumption. The logic of changing the treatment on offer for physical or mental illness, in this world, is one of saving money. Green space is seen as a cheap option.
But to reconnect people with the natural world effectively is anything but cheap: it requires ongoing care and maintenance for green and natural spaces, protection of biodiversity, and investment in the community and voluntary organisations who provide activities that animate green spaces and connect with people who might not otherwise use them. This may be effective, but it is not the easy win some imagine. And, as I point out in a recent article in the journal People, Place, and Policy, it fails to challenge the assumption that we must find ever-cheaper ways of providing public services.
The third difficulty is that access to the benefits of urban nature is not equal. Some of that is obvious: if you have a physical disability or suffer from social anxiety you might be less likely to go out. But we also know that in poorer areas people may be less likely to use the spaces on their doorsteps: they might see them as threatening or intimidating, as dirty or uncared-for.
I recently wrote a piece for the anthropology website Allegra Lab, asking what a public space might be without a public. Looking at three adjacent Sheffield parks on the same day, it was obvious that some were much more loved than others. Yet it would be hard to argue that the most popular parks are the most ‘natural’. Our relationships with nature in cities are complex, and the wellbeing benefits are not guaranteed. Improving wellbeing requires attention to the reasons why people in poorer areas might be less willing to use green space, and those reasons may be both social and spatial.
So we need the research in order to understand these issues better, and the research needs to dig deeper into the character and effects of social and spatial inequalities. But it also needs to look wider, connecting those inequalities with their context – including a context in the UK in which public services are cast as a cost rather than a benefit.