Greenspace and Health

Wendy Masterton, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Stirling

In the first mini lecture of a series created to explore key themes related to relating to COP26, Wendy Masterton considers the importance of maintaining green spaceĀ for human health. A transcript of the lecture is provided below.

Hi, everyone, I’m Wendy Masterton from the Faculty of Social Sciences, and this is my bite size lecture on the importance of maintaining green space for human health. 


Over half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and this is predicted to rise to around 70 percent by 2050. With the rise in global urbanisation, questions about how this change in environment may affect human health have been raised. Exposure to green spaces such as parks, gardens, forests, and other areas is beneficial from multiple measures of health for people living in urban areas. 

So, what is green space?  

There are two broad interpretations that you can see across the evidence base and in some instances: greenspace is a term used to describe any type of natural or semi natural undeveloped land is often used instead of the word nature. The other use of greenspace is to describe any type of vegetated land within or on the immediate outskirts of an urban area.  

In the Scottish government’s planning advice note for planning an open space, different classifications of open space were identified. For example, public parks and gardens, amenity green space, play space, sports areas, green corridors, undeveloped land, allotments, and all of these could potentially be referred to as green space. But in this talk today, I’ll use the term green space as an umbrella term when referring to all types of green areas, whether situated in an urban environment or in a rural environment.  

Greenspace and Policy 

The role of greenspace in supporting the delivery of health, social, environmental, and economic priorities is becoming more commonplace as the benefits of green space are being understood. The UK government has proposed an ambitious twenty-five-year environment plan, which sets out the main goals for the UK in terms of improving the environment within one generation. One of the main goals include ensuring green space is protected and maintained. 

In Scotland, specifically, the Scottish planning policy says that all new plan developments must take biodiversity into account, promote habitat restoration, and avoid habitat destruction.  

The Nature Conservation Scotland Act 2004 requires all public bodies to consider their role in promoting biodiversity and to consider the Scottish Government’s Twenty-five-year strategy: Scotland’s biodiversity it’s in your hands. This strategy’s main aims are to halt loss of biodiversity, increase awareness and understanding of biodiversity, increase enjoyment and engagement of nature and biodiversity, better plan, and design environments to promote biodiversity, incorporate biodiversity into day-to-day commercial decisions, and keep all relevant people such as policymakers up to date with important new research in biodiversity. 

Various non-governmental organisations have also developed policies and strategies with environmental restoration at their core. At regional level, cities are developing their own strategies as to how best they can develop and use their local green spaces. Internationally, green space is a key component within many of the United Nations 17 sustainability development goals. Maintaining quality green space is crucial in reaching many of the targets relating to ending hunger, renewable energy, innovation, and infrastructure, reducing inequalities, sustainable cities and communities, restoring and protecting life on land and sea, and improving and maintaining health and climate action. 

As part of the climate action goal, the maintenance and protection of green space is central to climate change agreements worldwide, such as the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement and the Parma Declaration on Environment and Health. Through these agreements, the goal is to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, only by achieving these goals can we avoid an irreversible damage to the planet through extreme weather conditions, species extinction, rising seas and oceans and other climate related risks and poverty. 

In Scotland, the importance of green space can be seen across the current health policy landscape to, for example, the national performance framework. The ability to live in vibrant, healthy, and safe places is priority one of the public health priorities for Scotland. Priority six also covers physical activity and eating well and acknowledges the role of the environment in this. 

How does greenspace affect health? 

I want to quickly take you through some of the proposed pathways through which greenspace is said to positively affect health. The first pathway is the idea that green space reduces harm through ecosystem services. What I mean by ecosystem services is the benefits that humans gained from nature and ecosystems. Two simple examples of this are air oxygenation in other words, cleaner air and also climate regulation. So, these are indirect benefits that humans are set to gain from nature and green spaces. 

The next pathway is the idea that nature could benefit human health through restorative environments, two leading theories here are attention, restoration theory and stress reduction theory. Attention restoration theory proposes that nature allows mental restoration and rest, which improves well-being. Stress reduction theory says the engagement with nature allows reductions in psychological stress and physiological arousal. 

The third pathway is about building capacities, so there are two pathways here, physical health and mental health. In regard to physical health, availability of green space has been reported as important for promoting active engagement with space, for example, through physical activity and active travel. As well as building physical capacities, green space can be used to improve mental health.  

It is important to highlight that mental health is not its own pathway, and there are clear links between all of the pathways already described. This is a rapidly growing research area. Research has explored the relationship between green space and health in lots of domains such as subjective well-being, depression, anxiety, psychological stress, happiness, general mood, rumination, psychological distress, bipolar and schizophrenia, amongst others. 

A recent study found that people who spent at least two hours in nature per week were consistently more likely to report higher levels of health and well-being compared to people who spent less time in nature. 

Perhaps most importantly, this pattern of a two-hour threshold was present for all groups that were looked at, including those with and without a long-term illness or disability. Interestingly, greenspace appears to be more beneficial for people with poorer mental health compared to those with better mental health. 

So, including greenspace into mental health strategy seems essential given the mental health concerns are increasing and in the current context, there is some concern that the pandemic may have made people’s mental health worse. Also, the prescription rate of antidepressants and the demand for talking therapies such as CBT is at record level in the U.K. So, this suggests a need to find ways to support the rise in demand while limiting rising costs 

Greenspace intervention programmes 

To finish, I want to speak briefly about how green space intervention programmes might be used to support people’s mental health. As well as availability of green space -so things like walks in the park and general immersion in nature. Another way green space is used is through green space programmes. What I mean by greenspace programme is a targeted health intervention typically undertaken outside in a green area. Other terms may be used, for example, green space intervention, nature-based programme, and green health programme, for example. Many settings have been used. For example, public parks, woodlands, rural settings, hospital and community gardens, farms, private gardens, and allotments. And the aims of these programmes are that they allow a person to reach desired goals, such as improved social cohesion and interaction, self-efficacy, and learning. and new skills. Programmes might be horticultural programmes, wilderness or adventure programmes, conservation programmes, care, farming, health works and others. 

A key benefit of green space programmes is that not only do they address health needs and contribute to population health, but they also fit into the climate agenda because they can encourage pro-environmental behaviour and they support the development and maintenance of quality green space.  

These are some of the key reasons why green space programmes are said to be successful for health. Firstly, the idea of being removed from daily lives and stressors. This doesn’t necessarily mean going far away to rural programmes, as even urban gardens can give the feeling of being away. Increased physical activity, increased self-efficacy and life skills, both on the programme and then leading to life outside the programme. Having a purpose, for example, through feelings of ownership and positive changes in identity, improved relationships with facilitators and peers. Again, both on the programme and outside the programme, and shared experiences which helped to reduce isolation. 

Thank you for listening. 

Theme by the University of Stirling