Last time I wrote about the general importance of nature to our lives. Recent research* by Essex University, commissioned by the Wildlife Trusts, looked particularly at the direct benefits of nature to our physical and mental health. It confirmed the findings of many other studies around the world that access to natural greenspaces, parks and gardens helps to reduce stress, improves your mood and reduces social isolation.
Many outdoor activities, such as health walks, exploring local history, community food growing, and conservation volunteering, provide vital physical exercise and social contact for young and old alike. To encourage us all to be involved The Wildlife Trusts have published ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’. These are: be active – explore your local greenspaces; take notice of the wildlife in your neighbourhood; connect with the people around you and share your experiences; learn by letting nature be your teacher; and give some of your time as a volunteer.
For us to be able to do these things we need safe and accessible open spaces in and around our neighbourhoods. It is unfortunate therefore that cuts to local authority budgets mean less resources are being devoted to the management of these open spaces. This is also ironic because in 2012 councils were charged with improving the health of their populations and reducing health inequalities. Like many large cities Birmingham has a wonderful legacy of parks, nature reserves and other open spaces. Looking after them means much more than cutting the grass and lopping the trees. The key factor is facilitating activities, whether informal, like walking the dog, or more organised like neighbourhood shows. Already reduced budgets are now threatened with yet more cuts.
As our greenspaces have so many health benefits one way of addressing this problem may be to link health service budgets to their management. The Open Spaces Society, Britain’s oldest national conservation body, has called for health service money to be invested in parks. Kate Ashbrook, the General Secretary, says: ‘Since our parks help to cut expenditure by promoting a healthier population, it makes sense to transfer money from health budgets to protection and improvement of green space, as an investment for people.’ This is one potential source of new funds worthy of investigation. Others will probably have to be found to reduce the burden on hard-pressed local councils.