Family walking in Galway woodland.
Apr 03 2017 Posted: 14:49 IST

NUI Galway and EPA pilot study finds that people perceive they are happier, more restored and more motivated to be active, when connecting with nature


NUI Galway and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have published a pilot study that connects health benefits with people’s perceptions of nature. The report, Health Benefits from Biodiversity and Green Infrastructure describes how people perceive contact with nature and how it enhances their health and wellbeing.

Professor Martin Cormican, Centre for Health from Environment, NUI Galway, and a lead author of the report, said: “Caring for the environment is about caring for people. The environment is where we live, work and play, it is what we eat, drink and breathe. The environment is the foundation of our personal wellbeing and of our communities. Communities working together with local authorities, health service and environmental agencies is the most effective and the least expensive way to get to help people live well and live long. Our work helps to find better ways in which we can work towards that goal.”

Researchers from NUI Galway assessed (1) evidence of wellbeing and health benefits from biodiversity, (2) views of health benefits from nature held by people who make decisions regarding green space and (3) practices to engage the public with the natural environment as a sustainable health strategy, to inform policymakers and practitioners of the health benefits from the natural environment, and to recommend implementation strategies in Ireland.

How people spend time outdoors and connect with nature changes as they progress through life. The researchers wanted to know who influences the type of outdoor spaces on our doorstep - and what do they think about nature and health? The team assessed scientific reports and also held interviews with decision-makers representing local authority staff, conservationists and health promotion officers.  

The research is important for local authorities and communities, health promotion officers and environmentalists as it demonstrates the need for decision makers and communities to work together to share their views on how to secure safe biodiverse attractive spaces for people and nature.

Key recommendations from the report include: 

  • Health Service Executive and local authorities should work closer together to ensure that access to attractive biodiverse space is secured at strategic planning levels. 
  • Safe accessible nature spaces should be co-designed with communities, reflect local needs and be within 300m of people’s homes.
  • The overarching recommendation is that health officials and environmental organisations need to work together to safeguard a healthy environment for healthy communities.

Professor Mike Gormally from the Applied Ecology Unit at NUI Galway, and a lead author of the report, said: “Recognising that people’s perceptions of nature differ is the first step. The next step is to discover how their perceptions influence the actions of key green space decision-makers and how that might impact on biodiversity.”

Dr Caitriona Carlin from the Ryan Institute at NUI Galway, and a lead author of the report, said: “We were delighted that all stakeholders recognised that contact with nature was important for their health and wellbeing. Some stakeholders were happy knowing nature was just around the corner, or talked about the presence of street trees. It is really important to create or retrofit urban spaces for nature and for people, to help them exercise, relax and feel calm. When people value that connection with nature, they are also more likely to conserve it. This has led directly to a new project, NEAR Health, which is all about connecting individuals and communities to nature. It is very exciting to work in this emerging area of nature and health as part of a team of scientists, social innovators, marketing and medical professionals.”

This pilot study has informed the NEAR Health project. Communities play a huge role in caring for our environment. The NEAR Health project asks communities what they want from nature in their locality, and what would help people connect more with nature.  

This research was conducted in the Ryan Institute at NUI Galway, with collaboration from the Health Service Executive (HSE) and local authorities.

The full report, Health Benefits from Biodiversity and Green Infrastructure, is available on the EPA website at: http://www.epa.ie/researchandeducation/research/researchpublications/researchreports/research195.html

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