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, we’ve seen enough to know that 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.
The COP-26 climate summit 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 that going for walks outside was one of our top coping strategies, with 45% of respondents reporting that being in green spaces had been vital for their 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 most beneficial for those with poor health.
But not everyone has the opportunity to realise these benefits. It is estimated that 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. This rises among those groups identified as least likely to access green space.
Then consider that 20% or more of all GP appointments in England, around 1.2 million per week, are for non-medical reasons such as social isolation, loneliness and the impact of a health inequality. This is a global challenge that can, in part, be addressed by improving our connection to the environment through approaches such as social prescribing.
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 accessing green space and support them to make the most of nature. 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 Delapré Abbey Preservation Trust in Northampton, they are finding innovative ways to connect people to their local park and highlight the impact 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 and 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 projects. Down in Plymouth, Green Minds, run by the Argyle Community Trust, are running 10 nature-based activities including tree and wetland species planting, wildlife watching, mindful nature walks and general care of the park.
Benefits for the environment
Green social prescribing is good for people because it can help them exercise, feel part of a community and feel connected to nature. It is good for the economy because this can result in health savings: Natural England estimates that £2.1 billion could be saved annually t if everyone in England had equally good access to green space.
It is also good 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”. It 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.
What’s more, ‘nature connectedness’ is a predictor of an individual’s health and wellbeing, but also their pro-environmental behaviours such as recycling, donating time or money to environmental organisations, or adopting new environmental behaviours. All things essential for climate action. Natural England’s study found that pro-environmental behaviours were most common among people who frequently visited a natural environment and had a strong 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. But it also increases the likelihood they will do their bit to tackle climate change. A win-win for people and the environment.