Nature's good for you
Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust will be looking after Waterford Heath near Hertford for at least the next 84 years. Sarah Buckingham takes a closer look at the wildlife that will be protected on the 100 acre site...
Green is good
Access to nature makes you feel better. Well, you didn’t need me to tell you that, did you?The link between good health and our natural environment has long been known. Nineteenth-century landscape designers like Joseph Paxton created public parks, places where people could unwind, relax and exercise, take in the fresh air and get away from the increasingly built-up environments of towns and cities. Hospitals used to be built with access to gardens or with a ‘green’ view, on the evidence (albeit perhaps anecdotal) that nature could help to speed patient recovery. The architects of the garden cities understood the importance of nature to people’s good health and happiness. Unfortunately, living in concrete jungles has drawn us away from the green places we instinctively feel we need to be close to.
Eighty-one per cent of us in the UK are now ‘urbanites’ (urban being defined as an area with a population of 10,000 or more). Whether it’s through a lack of money, a loss of understanding or the pressures of an ever growing population, one way or another nature has often been sidelined in our urban world, almost as an ‘extra’ that it would be nice to have, but not essential. We are endlessly bombarded on television with people bursting at the seams to get away from the ‘smoke’ to green and pleasant lands. Why shouldn’t our towns and cities be green and pleasant too? Especially when you consider what nature can do for us.
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Research shows that exposure to parks, open countryside, gardens and other green spaces has been found to have positive benefits for both our mental and physical health. The Faculty of Public Health has gone as far as to say that ‘safe, green spaces may be as effective as prescription drugs in treating some forms of mental illnesses’ (Great Outdoors, 2010).
Other research has shown that not only access to a green space, but to wildlife specifically, has measurable health benefits. Dr William Bird, GP and Strategic Health Advisor for Natural England, who has been a driving force behind ‘green gyms’ and author of a number of reports on the importance of the natural environment in public health, found that well designed wildlife gardens had a beneficial effect on the local population, including those in hospitals or residential care homes (Bird, Natural Fit, 2004).
The fact is, we need our natural environment just as much as any other species does. Humans have spent millions of years living as hunter gatherers, only forming permanent settlements in the last 10, 000 years or so. By concreting our way away from nature, we are depriving ourselves of the environment in which we have spent 99 per cent of our evolution.
The great thing about the natural environment as a health ‘service’ is that it’s cost-effective. In fact, studies suggest that the NHS and the economy as a whole could save a lot of money, simply by giving people access to nature, either in a structured or unstructured way.
Dr William Bird estimated that a single park in Portsmouth could save the economy �4.4 million a year, including �910,000 to the NHS.
A walk in a park can reduce the symptoms of ADHD in children as much as medication can. No medication, no cost to the NHS.
Does this all sound a bit obvious? Maybe. Without the research that can show tangible cost-benefits, though, these ideas are unlikely to hold any sway with financially straight-jacketed policy makers. We are living through a time of political and economic instability.Planners and health officials will increasingly have to work together for the good of public health. The way we plan our towns and cities could have so much potential for nature – but pressure on green space, for residential and commercial development, is huge.
One in six of us will suffer at some point in our lives with mental illness. The World Health Organisation estimates that depression and depression-related illness will become the greatest source of ill health by 2020: the biggest health burden we will have to face, both sociologically and economically, above heart disease and cancer. These statements are worrying, and mental illness is complex: there is no cure-all. But there is a lot we can do to help ourselves, simply by re-connecting with the natural world.
Researchers have found that just looking at a picture of nature can improve your mood. What could a short walk do?
The wonderful thing is that The Wildlife Trusts can already provide people with access to nature, not just in the countryside but in our towns and cities too. It doesn’t have to take up much time, money or be hard to get to... and it could make you feel better.
Discover urban nature on an easy winter walk
All of these places are free to visit.
See: The Wildlife Garden in Verulamium Park. A lovely place to sit and relax in the fantastic surroundings of the park, where red kites are often seen soaring overhead. There is a caf� a two-minute walk from the garden, if it gets a bit chilly!
Where: Beside Wildlife Trust HQ, next to Verulamium Museum (Al3 4SN). Two-minute walk from bus stop, St Michael’s Village; 20-minute walk from St Albans city centre.
See: Monk’s and Whomerley Woods. Explore the hidden wildlife treasures of Stevenage! Look out for early spring flowers on your walk through the woods.
Where: Starting point is Fairlands Valley Park South Field Car Park, Broadhall Way (A602) opposite the football ground (SG2 8RH). Download a guide to this walk at hertswildlifetrust.org.uk/wildstevenage
See: Winter birds at Stocker’s Lake. An easy circular walk, with a caf� at nearby Bury Lake to enjoy a hot drink at afterwards. See how many species you can spot?
Where: Visit hertswildlifetrust.org.uk/stockerslake for a detailed map and directions.
Five-minute walk from Rickmansworth Aquadrome bus stop. Postcode: WD3 1NB.
Meet new people and feel better outdoors. For details of organised health walks in your area, go to: http://www.wfh.naturalengland.org.uk