Governments like ambitious plans. They love to talk in terms of billions of pounds and ‘moonshot’ aspirations. The shiny and spectacular make better headlines than the everyday labour of caring for what we already have. But that everyday work of caring is foundational to our quality of life, as new research on urban green spaces underlines. The research from the Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature (IWUN) project, published in the journal Cities, highlights the ‘magic of the mundane’: the way ordinary spaces and places, and everyday activities within them, support our mental health and the health of the more-than-human world around us.
Caring is the activity that has been most neglected over the last decade. Money for the ordinary activities of local government, which looks after most of our parks and green spaces in the UK, has been reduced year after year, as the National Audit Office has detailed: between 2010 and 2017/2018, central government funding for English local authorities fell by 49.1 per cent in real terms, and spending power fell by 28.6 per cent. Green spaces, which are not a statutory responsibility, have been first in line for cost-cutting in many localities.
Our Cities article reveals how green spaces sit at the intersection of three types of stress: the mental stress facing people living in our cities, the institutional stresses faced by local government and public services, and the ecological stresses that are taking a growing toll on the natural world as a consequence of human activity.
Through our work in Sheffield, the research team found that there were a wide variety of ways in which connecting with nature supported mental wellbeing, and spaces in which people could grow and nurture those connections.
‘Karen’, a mental health service user who attended a workshop held as part of the project, described the scrubland seen on her daily journey as ‘always different. It ebbs and flows like the sea’. The head of therapy at a health trust spoke of her joy at seeing spring flowers or noticing frosty landscapes.
Such experiences are best not handed to people by prescribing a ‘dose of nature’ as if it were a course of cognitive behavioural therapy. Better that they are made possible each day through quite ordinary, but undervalued, practices of looking after our wildlife and green spaces, making sure they are safe and inclusive, creating walker-friendly and interesting routes, and providing facilities such as toilets that make places accessible to those who would otherwise be excluded.
There is value too in social prescribing, the practice of addressing health problems or aiding recovery through activities in the community rather than medical interventions. A health walk or an arts workshop, or just being able to sit in a green space safely and without anxiety, can effectively complement medical help and enable people to find ways of dealing with their own health conditions. But it is not a cheap substitute for traditional healthcare or an off-the-peg solution: our work emphasises the importance of understanding people’s own connections with nature and sense of self.
What we do know is that connections with nature are psychologically important and should be encouraged. Our work using a smartphone app showed that noticing good things in urban nature over seven days resulted in improvements in mental wellbeing that lasted two months. These ‘good things’ were everyday experiences – the view of a tree or sky, a flower in a wall or a squirrel in a park.
The unseen work of everyday life
But these everyday interactions are underpinned by unseen work, and are vulnerable if that work is neglected. If you design urban spaces with a high density of high-rise blocks to maximise profit on available land, you squeeze out the natural world and people’s opportunity to engage with it. If you have to cross a busy arterial road to visit your local park, you might be less inclined to bother.
If you fail to care for woodlands or canal towpaths and they become littered with glass and fly-tipped rubbish, people will stop using them. If you starve community organisations of funding so that they cannot organise local events and celebrations in parks, people will be more likely to stay in their homes. Nature then becomes less meaningful in people’s lives.
This story of neglect and simply not noticing what it takes for a town or city to offer a good quality of life is repeated time and again, and typifies current planning and practice in the UK. This is why our research, much of what emphasises what might appear obvious, matters.
It is also why a transdisciplinary approach is important. The world can’t be reduced to the findings of one empirical method, and neither can policy: how we plan and care for our towns and cities relates as much to people’s perceptions and experiences as it does to their physical health or economic prosperity.
So we need an approach that appreciates multiplicity and complexity, which is why we turned to affordance theory and the notion of ‘redundant causality’ in our work. Affordance theory highlights the many possibilities that a space or an object can offer – a tree can be a climbing frame, a memorial, a space of solace, a wildlife habitat, a provider of food and a carbon sink, among many other roles. There’s more on affordances in nature here and here.
The idea of redundant causality is that there can, and should, be many ways to reach a destination. If the policy objective is better mental health, then natural spaces should provide multiple ways of enhancing wellbeing. But not everyone will want to be outside – for some the outdoors is a place of fear. So the ‘best’ way of supporting wellbeing will be different for each person.
Four messages for policymakers
So we highlight four messages for policymakers, which can support the multiplicity of experiences of urban nature that enable city dwellers to have a rich quality of life.
First, we need sustained investment in the everyday physical and social infrastructure of urban natural spaces. This investment should create spaces of interest and surprise, promote social interaction and include funding and support for ongoing maintenance, care and renewal and increased biodiversity.
Second, we need to see green infrastructure as social infrastructure as well as an ecological network. Travellers should encounter nature in everyday journeys. High quality natural spaces should be provided equitably to ensure minorities and people with disabilities or health problems can access them. Policymakers should support the organisations and intermediaries (such as civil society organisations) that bring natural spaces to life. This will prompt a variety of experiences and relationships outlined in our pathways to nature connectedness.
Our third recommendation is that, in addition to engaging with nature to maintain wellbeing, healthcare providers should make use of green and natural spaces to support recovery from mental and physical illness and to manage continuing health conditions.
Fourth, policymakers should recognise that the health benefits of green spaces are dependent on a diverse and active network of community-based organisations and groups that link people, places and wellbeing. Such groups need to be included in decision-making and supported by national and local policies and funding.
These recommendations aren’t difficult or expensive to implement, compared with many of the initiatives governments have funded. But they do demand a change in mindset, letting go of the obsession with the new and shiny and valuing the magic of the everyday.
This first appeared as a guest post on Miles Richardson’s blog, Finding Nature