The Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature project has been awarded £1.3m from the Natural Environment Research Council to study how people from different neighbourhoods across Sheffield use local parks and how the quality and quantity of available green space impacts their health. The three-year study, which starts on 1 June, aims to promote the creation of well-designed urban green spaces as cost-effective ways to boost mental and physical health in the context of public sector spending cuts.
It will be led by the University of Sheffield's department of landscape and include academics from the University of Derby, Heriot-Watt University and University of Cardiff together with the Wildlife Trusts, Recovery Enterprises and the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare. The group will aim to influence policymakers and designers, improve the quality and management of urban green spaces and ensure that residents all over cities benefit from urban nature.
While it is well-known that spending time in natural spaces is good for people, much of the research contrasts green space with grey space, project lead Dr Anna Jorgensen explained. This research will instead compare different green spaces to help design and plan better spaces for maximum well-being.
"We are really going to be trying to pin down what it is that boosts feelings of health and well-being in the natural environment," said Jorgensen. "Is it biodiversity? Accessibility? Is it having lots of facilities? Is it being able to see lots of people or being on your own? Is it being close up to plants and animals? Is it fresh air?"
The project will also develop a more nuanced understanding of the distribution of urban natural environments and health inequalities, she added. Recent Natural England research identified groups that use green space less, including minority ethnic groups, people aged 65 or over, people from deprived areas and social grades D and E.
"We want to understand these potentially low-user groups - what is it that prevents them or drives their desire to go out into a green space and use it?" she said. "We don't want to apply a normative one-size-fits-all understanding of what it means to experience nature."
The researchers plan to develop a smartphone app to record how people interact with their local parks and green spaces. Some 900 participants, drawn from key user groups in Sheffield, will be monitored to see when and where they use the natural environment. They will then be prompted by the app to record what they notice and appreciate about the space.
Mental health benefits will be the main focus of the research. Among the 900 participants will be 100 who have had medical treatment for mental health problems such as depression.
The value of the natural environment will be assessed in terms of quality-adjusted life years, the standard measure used by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence, which decides what treatments and therapeutic interventions are approved for NHS use.
Using these rigorous measures should give the research heft and allow a comparison of value and cost-effectiveness compared with other interventions. Doctors will then have the information they need to confidently prescribe, for example, a walk in the park to their mental health patients.
Researchers will also look into the cost benefits and tradeoffs required to use parks effectively for health, including whether they detract from other ecosystem services such as flood mitigation or biodiversity. Finally, the research will be published in a user-friendly form, including a green and blue infrastructure health guide.
All this research will primarily feed into helping design, plan and manage green spaces, but it will also be useful for parks advocates who need ways to prove the value of green space in language that politicians understand.
"This project is a great opportunity to work collaboratively with the health sector and those responsible for the planning, design and management of urban green spaces," said Jorgensen. "We want to make this research as relevant and useful as possible and I'd really like to build relationships with those working in relevant organisations."
Deprived areas - Green and open spaces review included in local plan
The review board is not only looking for parks funding models. It has also identified areas that need more public green space, with a green and open spaces review included in the city's local plan.
O'Brien found a serious lack of green space in the more deprived north and east of Liverpool. However, thanks to the city's economic decline in the 1970s, there is plenty of naturally regenerated brownfield land across Liverpool. O'Brien is now identifying key areas where parks and woodland could be created.
For example, a student alerted O'Brien to a mature birch woodland that has grown up alongside an abandoned railway line. This could easily be made more accessible and made into public woodland.
The head of planning has also been brought on board with the idea of slowly creating a green infrastructure corridor throughout the city, using development levies to build up the network over time. This corridor has now been included in the city's draft local plan.