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The health, wellbeing and prosperity of nature and people are inextricable

Dom Higgins, Head of Health and Education at The Wildlife Trusts and co-chair of Link's Nature and Wellbeing Strategy Group, explains the critical partnership between nature and people.

July 2021

“The health, wellbeing and prosperity of nature and people are inextricable.” This is the opening sentence of Wildlife and Countryside Link’s statement about the critical partnership between People and the Natural Environment; and never has this had such resonance. The twin climate and nature emergencies combined are the defining challenges of our time – and the fallout from both also have profound impacts for people’s health and wellbeing. Yet the solutions, and preventing the worst of these impacts, lie with us.

Covid-19 has brought, and continues to bring many challenges. At the height of the pandemic, the impact of isolation, fear and instability was clear, and we saw people find their solace in the natural world. We all acted instinctively – feeling that the natural world outside our doors was there for us as a source of solace, escape, or simple exercise.

The evidence continues to mount. A recent Defra evidence review found that spending time in the natural environment improves our mental health and feelings of wellbeing, reducing stress, fatigue, and anxiety, as well as combatting loneliness and binding communities together. A study in the Lancet has shown that greener neighbourhoods have been shown to help prevent depression and reduce the burden on the NHS. Natural England itself back in 2009 estimated that £2.1 billion would be saved annually through averted health costs if everyone in England had equal access to green space. In 2019, a study from the European School for Medicine at Exeter University was published in the Nature journal that found that “Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing.” Prof Miles Richardson from the Nature Connectedness Research Group at Derby undertook a systematic review of 50 studies which showed nature connection related to feeling good & functioning well.

So – why do we continue to mistreat the natural world? To cut off our own life support system?

We know that nature has a transformational impact on our health and wellbeing, yet the natural environment is in poor health itself. The most recent 'State of Nature’ Report showed that almost half of UK wildlife is in long term decline and 15% of species are at risk of extinction. Strikingly, those living in the most deprived areas of the country are nine times less likely to live in the greenest areas. Lack of access to nature is a significant factor in preventable health inequalities. Those who are most in need of the wellbeing benefits nature can bring are often those who find it most difficult to access.

So what needs to change? We must act now to:

  • Reverse the decline of nature to ensure a thriving and health environment for all people; put wildlife on a path to recovery; and yes – get legal targets with teeth that achieve this.
  • Create greater and more equitable access to high quality natural spaces and change the way we plan, build and travel around.
  • Integrate health and wellbeing into environmental policies, and vice versa, for an effective Natural Health Service that works for all. We need to learn from and rapidly scale up these small Government pilots such as the Green Prescribing for Mental Health and Local Nature Recovery Strategies, and turn them into something truly transformational.
  • Put nature and outdoor learning at the heart of education system and give our children the best start in life, and for a life of joy that awaits them spent.

Up until now, policies have tackled biodiversity loss, climate change and human health in isolation and independent of each other. Link’s ‘People and the Natural Environment - a critical partnership’ statement urges the UK Governments to do things differently. To find the connections, and take coordinated action to address these crises. This will maximise the benefits and be a truly world-leading approach to mitigating biodiversity loss and climate change and their social impacts.

Dom Higgins is Head of Health and Education at The Wildlife Trusts and is co-chair of Link's Nature and Wellbeing Strategy Group.

Follow @WildlifeTrusts.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.