What your local park can do for you

A 2010 survey by the National Trust revealed that 80% of the happiest people in the UK said that they have a strong connection with nature, compared to just 37% of the unhappiest. So although this title says local park, you could just as easily insert ‘allotment’, ‘woodland’, ‘nature reserve’, the list is endless. It points to the idea that green places could make you happier: a very good reason to love your local park.

Back in the late nineteenth century, our founders recognised the importance of access to green space for health and wellbeing becoming part of the Trust’s core purpose. One of our founders Octavia Hill said:

‘The need of quiet, the need of air, the need of exercise, and the sight of sky and of things growing, seem human needs common to all’.

©National Trust Images/ Mark Bolton

Increasingly research shows these same conclusions: there is a positive association between proximity to green places and happiness. But the research is going even further than suggesting that natural space makes you happy, it intimates that it could improve your health. Numerous studies indicate that spending time in natural spaces can help a range of problems, from depression to Alzheimer’s disease. The National Trust is keen to ensure that access to high quality natural environment is not seen simply as an environmental issue, but as a social and public health issue as well.

If you move beyond simply spending time in your local park to actually exercising there, the impact can get even better. Green exercise has been increasingly used to tackle obesity and improve self-esteem. It has been argued that exercising outdoors can have a greater positive impact on both physical and mental health than exercising inside.

The NHS has increasingly started to recognise the role that green exercise could play in a more natural health service. Recently, the NHS Tayside Health Board started Tayside Woods for Health, an initiative for people with mental illnesses, where local Ranger services provided nature activities structured around the John Muir Award. And it seems to have had an impact: the participants reported a range of health benefits, including increased confidence, self-esteem, physical activity and sense of well-being.

©National Trust Images/ John Millar

Not only are these initiatives good for the people involved, they could also save the NHS money. With Tayside Woods for Health, alongside the health benefits that the participants reported, their dependence on prescription drugs and 1:1 support fell. It also meant that the people involved could build up a support network of like minded and like experienced people, potentially easing their experiences of rehab and treatment.

So what does this cost? Importantly, in this time of austerity, this scheme actually saved money; for every £1 that was spent on the initiative, £9.30 would normally have been spent. And that is not small change. And if this scheme was taken nationally it indicates a potential significant saving. Indeed, Natural England has calculated that equitable access to green space could save the NHS £2.1bn per year.    

©National Trust Images/Paul Harris

So what can your local park do for you? Simply, your local park, or woodland, or wetland, or any green places could play an important role in the continuing state of your health. The potential role that green exercise could play in the NHS means that your local park could also, helpfully, reduce the NHS spend. But do you think that your local green places could make you happier and healthier? Have your say below.

You can read more about our views on this topic in our policy document Our land: for ever, for everyone. There is more information about the Tayside Woods for Health Scheme here. The Scottish Government’s Making the most of communities’ natural assets: green infrastructure and The Health Impact Assessment of Greenspace: A Guide  both provide insight into how places can be used to improve health and well-being.

Blog by Emma Munro-Faure, Campaigns and Research Intern.

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