James Sanderson, our CEO, reflects during November’s COP-26 on how important the nature and a healthy environment are for our health and wellbeing. 

As a global society we face the triple threats of climate change; the breakdown of habitats and biodiversity and inequalities in physical and mental health outcomes. While the full impact of Covid-19 is still emerging, deprived communities have borne the brunt of the crisis.  These communities, with lower levels of health, social and economic resilience before the pandemic, are now facing greater challenges and are considerably more vulnerable to future environmental and economic shocks.   

COP-26 focused  the world’s attention on the urgent need to protect the environment and tackle climate change. The evidence shows that the natural environment can have huge benefits on our health and wellbeing, and our appreciation of nature is being strengthened through social prescribing.  

Research from the Mental Health Foundation on the mental health impacts of the pandemic showed going for walks outside was one of our top coping strategies and 45% of us reported being in green spaces had been vital for our mental health. And it’s not just mental health. Evidence shows that living in greener environments is associated with reduced mortality and can reduce the effects of long-term deprivation. A 2019 study found that walking in natural environments was shown to be most beneficial for those with poor health. 

But not everyone has the opportunity to realise these benefits. It is estimated that 20% or more of all GP appointments in England, around 1.2m per week, are for non-medical reasons such as social isolation, loneliness and the impact of health inequality. This is a global challenge that can in part be addressed through wider action to mitigate climate change, by improving our connection to the environment through approaches such as social prescribing.      

It is crucial that people have access to natural environments but 2.69 million people in Great Britain do not live within a 10-minute walk of a green space. Proximity to green space is particularly important when we consider that 68% of visits to natural environments are made within 2 miles of home, and this percentage rises amongst those groups identified as least likely to access green space. 

Green Social Prescribing 

Social prescribing is about better health for everyone. It is inclusive, focusing on what matters to each individual. ‘Green’ social prescribing links people to nature-based interventions and activities, such as local walking for health schemes, community gardening and food-growing projects. When done well, it can help people overcome the barriers they face to accessing green space and making the most of nature – and it can also help protect local environments.  

That’s why we’re delighted to be supporting the cross-Government Green Social Prescribing project, which is testing how to embed green social prescribing into communities in pilot areas across the country. 

Our Thriving Communities Fund also helps people  to benefit from clean and healthy environments near to their homes. At The Green Happy Café, run by Delapre Preservation Trust in Northampton, they are finding innovative ways to connect people to their local park and highlight the importance that looking after it has on their wellbeing.  

At OrganicLea they are delivering ‘Green Care’ activities that engage residents in addressing environmental issues such as energy conservation, food waste, biodiversity loss, that also have a positive social impact. Studio 3 Arts in Yorkshire will see The Wilds Ecology Centre  serve as a base to explore nature through multi-disciplinary social art commissions and connect to local environmental projectss. Down in Plymouth, Green Minds, run by Argyle Community Trust, are running 10 nature-based activities including tree and wetland species planting; wildlife watching; mindful nature walks/trails; and general care of the park. 

Benefits for the environment 

The Government’s recent National Over-Prescribing Review pointed out that “the manufacture and distribution of medicines, and the use of some medicines, has a significant impact on greenhouse gases”, and argued that reducing unnecessary prescriptions would have a positive impact on the environment.  

While medication of course plays a vital role in the treatment of many conditions, social prescribing can help to reduce over-prescription – and this, in turn, can help reduce carbon emissions. 

Green social prescribing is good for individuals because it can help them exercise, feel part of a community and feel connected to nature. Natural England estimate £2.1 billion could be saved annually through health costs if everyone in England had equally good access to green space. It improves mental health, boosts physical health, and decreases loneliness. 

But feeling connected to nature is also good for the environment and critical for climate change. ‘Nature connectedness’ is a predictor of an individual’s health and wellbeing, and their pro-environmental behaviours such as recycling, donating time or money to environmental organisations, or adopting new environmental behaviours – essential for climate action. Natural England’s study found that pro-environmental behaviours were most common among people who frequently visited the natural environment and had a high sense of connection to it.  

So, the more we can do through social prescribing to help people connect with their environment, the better it is for their health and wellbeing and increases the likelihood they will adopt new environmental behaviours including actions to help tackle climate change. A win-win for people and the environment.