Growing well

IMG_0207I did not grow up in the City.  As long as I have lived here, I have sought out green space as a salve for my mental state.  A distant horizon and open sky allow my eyes to relax and my mind to expand.

As a recent move to a more urban home loomed, I wrestled to keep my mind open about the experience.  I wasn’t prepared for how quickly I would feel claustrophobic, and fraught.  On our first weekend, I frog-marched the family to a local garden centre to inject some green into the grey patio.  After a couple of days the bright blooms had attracted bees, but my sensibilities were not as easily placated. Two stops on the Overground, and I could breath in a glorious Autumn day as I ran around Hampstead Heath.  It is a remarkable natural resource that I am fortunate to live close to.

With urban populations swelling, green spaces in and around our cities are increasingly valuable for our health, wellbeing, climate change resilience, and recreation.  The value of natural capital close to cities is widely recognised.  The recent Aldersgate Group report, Investing in our Natural Assets highlighted the link between public health and natural capital, not least because of strained NHS budgets.  Natural England has estimated that if every household in England had equitable access to good quality green space, then £2.1bn could be saved in averted health costs.  Time spent in nature or urban green spaces can produce better outcomes for patient rehabilitation.  The NHS Forest project is focused on improving “the health and wellbeing of staff, patients and communities through increasing access to green space on or near to NHS land”.

As well as space to exercise, exposure to green areas helps reduce blood pressure, reduces stress and muscular tension. MIND’s report ‘Feel Better Outside, Feel Better Inside’ evidenced the positive impact on mental and physical well-being of gardening based activities and horticultural therapy. “Ecotherapy initiatives have the potential to improve health and wellbeing for individuals and to significantly reduce public health costs by encouraging healthier communities”.

However last year a UCL report, Natural Solutions to Tackling Health Inequalities highlighted the large variations in the number of people using green space for health and exercise by local authority. The report noted, “There are clear inequalities in access and use of natural environments. People living in the most deprived areas are 10 times less likely to live in the greenest areas. Indeed the most affluent 20% of wards in England have 5 times the amount of parks or general green space than the most deprived 10% of wards”.  Planning authorities must embed quality green infrastructure in their development plans, as income-related inequality in health is moderated by exposure to green space.

We need to make good use of green space in our cities, one inspiring example is the Hammersmith Community Gardens Association (HCGA), a local environmental charity that manages several community gardens sites in West London. From conservation training schemes, volunteer gardening sessions, health and wellbeing projects, environmental play schemes and education, there is an ingenious mix of people and projects delivered by a passionate team, that Karen Liebreich, guerrilla gardener and trustee, had invited me to visit.

IMG_0160As we arrived at Ravenscourt Park glasshouse, Zoe Lyall, School and Community Gardener was chatting with two spritely seventy-something volunteers for the afternoon’s Grow Well session, therapeutic gardening for carers. Even on a bitter winter’s day the greenhouse was lush, and inviting. Grow Well complements, the NHS funded Plant a Seed which trains NHS staff to develop therapeutic gardening and food growing projects within their own setting. Nearby in White City, HCGA is a partner managing the Phoenix School Farm and Learning Zone, where Cath Knight co-ordinates the one acre site growing vegetables for the Phoenix, other schools, and now the Salt Yard tapas restaurant. The Get Out There! project offers local unemployed people the opportunity to learn new skills in basic environmental management. Keith Bittan, a graduate of Get Out There is now working for the related social enterprise, Cultivate London. Keep your eyes peeled for Cultivate London’s plants at a London Farmers’ Market in the spring.

So, if the Festive cheer is overwhelming, wrap up and walk out the door for a breath of fresh air.  Feel the wind on your face, hear the birds, smell the damp soil and cherish the simplest of pleasures in the holiday season. Oh, and may be see if there is a moribund bit of space that you could nurture back to green nearby?

Related links:

Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health (2015) Green Infrastructure, Ecosystem Services, and Human Health.

Natural England (2009) Our Natural Health Service: The role of the natural environment in maintaining healthy lives.

Growing for Health’s report on ‘The Benefits of Gardening and Food Growing for Health and Wellbeing