Obesity, mental health problems, air and noise pollution, heat stress and social exclusion — these are just a few of the health and social challenges Europeans face today. But according to a new report released by Friends of the Earth in conjunction with the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), increased exposure to nature and green space could help improve both physical and mental health.
An analysis of more than 200 academic studies led researchers at the IEEP to establish a link between biodiversity-rich environments and health and well-being. Researchers found that as a whole, regular exposure to natural areas offered multiple health benefits, ranging from a reduction in allergies to improved mood and self-esteem. For example, iIn Spain, people living within 300 meters of green spaces report better self-perceived health and mental health and access to nature has been proven to reduce childhood behavioral problems, such as hyperactivity, emotional symptoms and peer relationship problems.
“The evidence is strong and growing that people and communities can only thrive when they have access to nature,” said Robbie Blake, nature campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, which commissioned the analysis.
“We all need nature in our lives, it gives us freedom and helps us live healthily; yet deprived communities are routinely cut off from nature in their surroundings and it is suffocating for their well-being.”
Nature for Health and Equity also sheds light on the relationship between nature and socio-economic inequalities. The report points to access to nature as being linked to income inequality, with significantly less green space available to residents of low-income neighborhoods and communities. Research demonstrated that inequality in mental well-being is larger among people who report poor access to green areas, compared with those with good access.
In a study in Denmark, people living more than 1 kilometers from green space were found to be more likely to be obese than those living closer than 300 meters. Research from the UK also indicated that 26 percent of England’s black and minority populations visit natural environments less than three times last year, as opposed to 15 percent of the rest of the population.
While groups projects such as the Walkability Project in Pembrokshire, UK and the Social Forest Initiative in Spain are helping bridge the gap between disadvantaged communities and access to green space, increased efforts on behalf of both governments and international organizations is needed. The IEEP and Friends of the Earth are calling for an acceleration of the integration of nature and social concerns across policy areas, including greater investment in urban green space and updated building codes with minimum standards for nature proximity.
“We should be inspired by this and work together so that all Europeans have nature within 300 meters of their homes in the next 10 years,” said Patrick ten Brink, IEEP director.