NHS should fund local green organisations to improve wellbeing, say researchers

Researchers at the University of Sheffield have called on the NHS to fund partnerships with community organisations to broaden people’s connections with nature, as part of a ‘place-based’ approach to healthcare that could ease pressure on health and social care services.

In a briefing for healthcare professionals, academics leading the University’s Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature (IWUN) project also urged GPs to prescribe time in nature to improve patients’ mental health, after a study found improvements in wellbeing for people who spent time in quality green spaces.

The briefing draws together findings from the three-year IWUN research project examining how urban nature supports mental wellbeing. In a study in Sheffield, led by the University of Derby, participants used a smartphone app to notice the good things in green or built environments. This produced statistically significant improvements in wellbeing for adults in general, and clinically significant improvements for people with a mental health difficulty.

The benefits were strongest among people who had spent less time outdoors in the past or felt less connected to nature – and where green spaces were more biodiverse.

In another strand of the research led by the University of Sheffield, the academics found rates of depression were lower in areas where public green spaces were cleaner and residents had larger gardens. The research suggests people find it harder to connect with nature when they feel the natural environment is poorly maintained or difficult to access.

The findings have resulted in recommendations for healthcare professionals, green space managers, planners and voluntary organisations, including:

  • GPs and other healthcare professionals should adapt current social prescribing approaches to build connections with nature.
  • Clinical commissioning groups should fund and evaluate green social prescriptions involving activities in natural spaces and digital interventions such as a wellbeing app.
  • Nature should be integrated into the ‘five ways to wellbeing’ promoted by the NHS.
  • Healthcare organisations should consider financial support for community and voluntary organisations working in green spaces, such as ‘Friends’ groups.
  • Healthcare professionals should help to create and look after places where people can appreciate urban nature through funding wellness activities and facilities, providing their own green spaces or offering patients maps showing green routes and natural spaces in their local areas.
  • Planners and managers should provide cafés, pedestrian-friendly access routes, places to sit, toilets and staff to make green spaces welcoming and inclusive.
  • Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, people with disabilities, migrants, elders and young people should influence the design and management of local green spaces.
  • Planners should ensure new housing developments provide enough space for a family garden with room for trees and space to grow plants and vegetables and create easily accessed digital maps of green ‘wellbeing routes’.

IWUN project lead, Professor Anna Jorgensen from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Landscape Architecture, said: “IWUN has shown that the planning, design and management of parks and green spaces can have a real impact on the health and wellbeing of diverse urban populations – but we need to invest in them, and the people and organisations that activate them, to realise their full potential.

“By taking this place-based approach, NHS clinical commissioning groups and GPs can support their local communities and tackle some of the financial and service pressures they face.”

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