Natural England - Mind the Gap – how green spaces can help tackle health inequality

Mind the Gap – how green spaces can help tackle health inequality

19 November 2013

On 28 November the National Outdoors for All Working Group - an alliance of public and voluntary organisations – is hosting a major conference in London to focus on the important role the natural environment can play in providing a cost effective means of tackling health inequalities.

Clapton Park Estate, Hackney © John Little

Clapton Park Estate, Hackney © John Little

In the run-up to the conference, Dr Jessica Allen, Deputy Director of the Institute of Health Equity at University College London shares with us some of the key facts on health inequalities and the increasing interest that is being shown in developing natural solutions, which she will speak about in detail in her Key Note address to the conference. 

Jessica explains that there are significant health differences between the wealthiest and poorest in England – put simply, those who live in less deprived neighbourhoods live longer and healthier lives.

“In recent years, efforts to reduce health inequalities and persuade people to lead healthier lifestyles have had a positive impact on the population overall (data from the Health Survey for England shows that overall numbers of people engaging in unhealthy behaviours has fallen by 8%) but these gains have been heavily concentrated among wealthier sections of the population. To date, initiatives have failed to make the same impact amongst people from lower socioeconomic groups1 and in many areas gaps in health inequalities have progressively widened.

The stark fact is that despite the large investment in addressing health inequalities, the gap in health outcomes between the rich and poor in England remains the same as it was in 1997. 

Linked to these statistics on deprivation and health inequality are statistics around access to green space. In England the most deprived communities are 10 times less likely to live in the greenest areas. By contrast, those who live in wealthier neighbourhoods are more likely to live in close proximity to green spaces2 and these green spaces are more likely to be of better quality. Where access to high quality greenspace exists, surrounding communities are more likely to make better use of them; experiencing better health outcomes and greater longevity as a result.

We know that inequalities in mortality are higher for those who have less exposure to green space and that children living near green spaces are less likely to experience an increase in body mass index over time3. Living in a neighbourhood with less green space is associated with greater risk of anxiety and depression, feelings of loneliness and perceived shortage of social support4. Conversely, living in a neighbourhood with more green space and visiting natural environments is associated with lower levels of stress and anxiety and has been known to improve concentration and mood5.

Research shows that 5 groups in particular are disengaged with the natural environment - Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, those living in urban areas with high deprivation, those people from the lowest  socioeconomic groups, people aged over 65, and people with disabilities and/or long term health conditions, are the least likely to visit natural environments.

Faced with the evidence of inequality of health and access, experts consider that more focus needs to be directed at reducing these gaps and improving the health behaviours of lower socioeconomic groups. There is an increasing recognition that improving access to the natural environment can be a cost effective part of the solution. Evidence is increasingly suggesting that initiatives to engage more people with the natural environment and green spaces can have a positive impact on health, improving obesity rates, long term health conditions, mental ill-health and premature death, whilst reducing the risk factors that lead to poor health.”

The Outdoors for All conference on 28 November will bring together experts from across the environment and health sectors to look at how the provision of improved access to green space can have a significant impact on improving health and reducing health inequalities.

Natural England’s Jim Burt, Chair of the National Outdoors for All Working Group concluded, “Health inequality is a major and pressing social issue so we need to do all we can to improve access to high quality greenspace, close to where those people with the greatest need live.  This will require organisations from across the environment and health sectors to work more closely but success will deliver low cost solutions for improving people’s health and wellbeing. We are very much looking forward to welcoming delegates on the 28th November to start this work.”

Full details of the programme as well as an online ticket bookingexternal link facility for the ‘Natural solutions for tackling health inequalities ’ conference are now available.

Footnotes:

1 The King’s Fund (2012) Clustering of unhealthy behaviours over time: implications for policy and practiceexternal link  
2 CABE (2010) Urban green nation: Building the evidence base. 
3 Bell, Wilson and Liu (2008) Neighborhood greenness and 2-year changes in body mass index of children and youth. 
4 Maas et al. (2009) Morbidity is related to a green living environment. 
5 Roe J, Thompson C et al. (2013) Green space and stress.