29th July 1981 was one of the best days of my childhood.
For those old enough, street parties and a royal wedding may come to mind – but not for me. Instead my dad suggested an adventure – we’d take my tiny 2-person blow up boat and spend the day on our local river – the stunningly beautiful Hampshire chalk river, the Itchen. We set off early in the morning from the Bridge Inn at Shawford and managed to take a whole day to only get as far as Bishopstoke near where we lived downstream. Not far on the map, but for a 10 year-old it was the adventure of a lifetime.
Fast forward 40 years and I’ve spent the last decade of my career as an Environmental Psychologist studying the mental and physical health benefits of spending time in around a whole range of aquatic ‘blue spaces’, including seas, lakes, and of course rivers like the Itchen. Working with a fantastic interdisciplinary team at the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter we have used all the research tools available to us to try and understand: how good spending time in these settings is for your mental and physical health; what mechanisms explain these effects; what makes an experience particularly good and bad; how often and for how long do you need to visit blue spaces to gain the benefits; and because we have a mind on the needs of policymakers, how much are the potential benefits worth in monetary terms?
We’ve used every tool in our researcher’s tool box to answer these questions: in-depth one-to-one interviews with a wide range of water users; evaluations of field trials such as sail-training and surfing to support the mental health of ‘at risk’ groups; examined data from key national datasets such as the Census and the Health Survey for England; and led a large international collaboration to explore these patterns across the world. Our conclusions are broadly as follows:
As a research scientist I now understand why 29th July 1981 was so special to me. I spent an entire day of quality time with one of the most important people in my life, engaging in gentle physical activity, on a still clean and highly biodiverse chalk stream. There is little doubt that the evidence in support of the benefits of blue spaces like the Itchen is in line with the memories and intuitive beliefs of many of us.
Preserving the integrity of the nation’s critical, but fragile, blue spaces is not just a matter of nature-based conservation - it affects the long-term health and mental well-being of us all, including the 10 year-olds with a blow up boat and a taste for adventure who inherit these magical places from us.
Mathew White is Senior Scientist (Environmental Psychology) at the University of Vienna.
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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