Green spaces help combat loneliness – but they need investment

Pollok Country Park, Glasgow. Image: Getty.

Urban green spaces – including parks, woodlands, riverbanks, and gardens – are an essential part of a web of physical and mental well-being. They provide spaces to socialise and opportunities to connect with the natural world. They are restorative enclaves in stressful cities.

The UK government’s first strategy on loneliness, recently launched, recognises the importance of green spaces in supporting this web of connections. But England’s urban natural environment is increasingly at risk, jeopardising the ambitions of the loneliness strategy from the outset.

A whole chapter in the loneliness strategy is devoted to community infrastructure – the places, spaces and activities that bring people together where they live. The strategy promises to unlock the potential of underused community space, including local parks. It recognises the wealth of research that shows how green spaces enhance health and well-being and provide community meeting places.

Our research at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Landscape Architecture reinforces and enriches these key messages about green space and well-being. We are examining the relationship between natural urban spaces and mental well-being, exploring spaces, stories and connections in Sheffield, Britain’s fifth-largest city.

Endcliffe Park, Sheffield: a restorative and social space. Image: Paul Brindley/IWUN/creative commons.

What we have found in Sheffield resonates internationally. A study in Adelaide, for example, highlighted the interrelationships of green space, walking and social interaction in supporting well-being. Another study in the Netherlands highlights the role of green spaces in reducing stress, encouraging physical exercise and enhancing social cohesion. Our concern has been not only to enrich this scholarly understanding, but to examine how it can be better translated into practice.

Getting outside

In our own research we have worked with local professionals and community members, from volunteers in parks to doctors and urban planners. We have identified five simple and inexpensive interventions that will help to maximise people’s connections with urban nature and create more favourable contexts for well-being. Three of those interventions have a direct bearing on isolation and loneliness.

One is the provision of toilets and cafes in parks and woodlands. As one community worker told us: “It’s not that the toilet improves people’s mental well-being, it’s that the toilet allows them to do the activity that will improve their well-being.” Without them, many older people, parents with young children, or people with disabilities or long-term illnesses may decide that the city’s parks are only for the fit and healthy. More than 1,700 UK public toilets have closed in recent years, although MPs have long argued that councils should have a duty to provide facilities in key locations such as parks.


A second intervention is the provision of staff in parks. These are people employed to look after and maintain the environment but also to run activities and support voluntary groups. One member of a local volunteers group told us how invaluable Sheffield City Council’s park rangers were in helping to organise and inform their work. Without them, the opportunity this group provided for meeting others and engaging in meaningful activity might be lost. According to the trade union Unison, 81 per cent of parks departments have lost skilled staff since 2010.

We are also recommending support for voluntary and community organisations to put on activities in parks and green spaces. These are the organisations that are rooted in local communities and can provide a vital bridge between spaces and people, creating safe and supportive environments for those who might be nervous about venturing outside.

Groups like Manor & Castle Development Trust, for example, offer health walks and confidence-building activities for people in one of Sheffield’s most deprived neighbourhoods. Such community infrastructure doesn’t simply sustain itself: it requires support, links with local planners and policymakers, and financial and material resources.

One voluntary sector worker explained the difference a trusted local organisation can make:

Having a friendly face – having people there that they know and that they recognise... that’s so important. And for so many people, that might be the only contact that they have all day.

Austerity impacts

These interventions are not expensive, but they do cost. They are also the easiest costs to strip out of hard-pressed local government budgets, with the effects felt disproportionately by disadvantaged people in deprived areas. When they are cut, green spaces become underused and can appear hostile rather than welcoming.

The government’s loneliness strategy highlights the £500,000 recently allocated by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government to “identify and share effective and deliverable models of service delivery” through the new Parks Action Group.

But the funds for managing the green spaces that people use to socialise, to meet friends or find restorative environments outside the home, continue to shrink. In just one city, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, funding for parks and allotments has been cut by 90 per cent. Over the next ten years, without further cuts, the council faces a shortfall of a further £17.5m.

These cuts are directly linked to austerity policies that have removed resources from local government while adding to local authority responsibilities. In 2019-20, English local authorities face a further loss of £1.3bn in government funds.

In this context, even simple, cheap interventions to increase well-being and reduce loneliness become harder to achieve. The words in the loneliness strategy may be warm, but the climate lonely and isolated people face in English cities continues to grow harsher.

The Conversation

Julian Dobson, Research Associate, Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature, University of Sheffield.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What’s killing northerners?

The Angel of the North. Image: Getty.

There is a stark disparity in wealth and health between people in the north and south of England, commonly referred to as England’s “north-south divide”. The causes of this inequality are complex; it’s influenced by the environment, jobs, migration and lifestyle factors – as well as the long-term political power imbalances, which have concentrated resources and investment in the south, especially in and around London.

Life expectancy is also lower in the north, mainly because the region is more deprived. But new analysis of national mortality data highlights a shockingly large mortality gap between young adults, aged 25 to 44, living in the north and south of England. This gap first emerged in the late 1990s, and seems to have been growing ever since.

In 1995, there were 2% more deaths among northerners aged 25 to 34 than southerners (in other words, 2% “excess mortality”). But by 2015, northerners in this age group were 29% more likely to die than their southern counterparts. Likewise, in the 35 to 44 age group, there was 3% difference in mortality between northerners and southerners in 1995. But by 2015, there were 49% more deaths among northerners than southerners in this age group.

Excess mortality in the north compared with south of England by age groups, from 1965 to 2015. Follow the lines to see that people born around 1980 are the ones most affected around 2015.

While mortality increased among northerners aged 25 to 34, and plateaued among 35 to 44-year-olds, southern mortality mainly declined across both age groups. Overall, between 2014 and 2016, northerners aged 25 to 44 were 41% more likely to die than southerners in the same age group. In real terms, this means that between 2014 and 2016, 1,881 more women and 3,530 more men aged between 25 and 44 years died in the north, than in the south.

What’s killing northerners?

To understand what’s driving this mortality gap among young adults, our team of researchers looked at the causes of death from 2014 to 2016, and sorted them into eight groups: accidents, alcohol related, cardiovascular related (heart conditions, diabetes, obesity and so on), suicide, drug related, breast cancer, other cancers and other causes.

Controlling for the age and sex of the population in the north and the south, we found that it was mostly the deaths of northern men contributing to the difference in mortality – and these deaths were caused mainly by cardiovascular conditions, alcohol and drug misuse. Accidents (for men) and cancer (for women) also played important roles.

From 2014 to 2016, northerners were 47% more likely to die for cardiovascular reasons, 109% for alcohol misuse and 60% for drug misuse, across both men and women aged 25 to 44 years old. Although the national rate of death from cardiovascular reasons has dropped since 1981, the longstanding gap between north and south remains.

Death and deprivation

The gap in life expectancy between north and south is usually put down to socioeconomic deprivation. We considered further data for 2016, to find out if this held true for deaths among young people. We found that, while two thirds of the gap were explained by the fact that people lived in deprived areas, the remaining one third could be caused by some unmeasured form of deprivation, or by differences in culture, infrastructure, migration or extreme weather.

Mortality for people aged 25 to 44 years in 2016, at small area geographical level for the whole of England.

Northern men faced a higher risk of dying young than northern women – partly because overall mortality rates are higher for men than for women, pretty much at every age, but also because men tend to be more susceptible to socioeconomic pressures. Although anachronistic, the expectation to have a job and be able to sustain a family weighs more on men. Accidents, alcohol misuse, drug misuse and suicide are all strongly associated with low socioeconomic status.

Suicide risk is twice as high among the most deprived men, compared to the most affluent. Suicide risk has also been associated with unemployment, and substantial increases in suicide have been observed during periods of recession – especially among men. Further evidence tells us that unskilled men between ages 25 and 39 are between ten and 20 times more likely to die from alcohol-related causes, compared to professionals.

Alcohol underpins the steep increase in liver cirrhosis deaths in Britain from the 1990s – which is when the north-south divide in mortality between people aged 25 to 44 also started to emerge. Previous research has shown that men in this age group, who live in the most deprived areas, are five times more likely to die from alcohol-related diseases than those in the most affluent areas. For women in deprived areas, the risk is four times greater.


It’s also widely known that mortality rates for cancer are higher in more deprived areas, and people have worse survival rates in places where smoking and alcohol abuse is more prevalent. Heroin and crack cocaine addiction and deaths from drug overdoses are also strongly associated with deprivation.

The greater number of deaths from accidents in the north should be considered in the context of transport infrastructure investment, which is heavily skewed towards the south – especially London, which enjoys the lowest mortality in the country. What’s more, if reliable and affordable public transport is not available, people will drive more and expose themselves to higher risk of an accident.

Deaths for young adults in the north of England have been increasing compared to those in the south since the late 1990s, creating new health divides between England’s regions. It seems that persistent social, economic and health inequalities are responsible for a growing trend of psychological distress, despair and risk taking among young northerners. Without major changes, the extreme concentration of power, wealth and opportunity in the south will continue to damage people’s health, and worsen the north-south divide.

The Conversation

Evangelos Kontopantelis, Professor in Data Science and Health Services Research, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.