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Well-being and quality of life

Background

Well-being, health and quality of life are holistic terms with a range of contested definitions. In general, these concepts embrace both personal and community well-being, and refer to physical, social, economic and psychological dimensions, which are connected with individual and community learning, development and capacity-building, sense of place and cultural identity. The term well-being is used here to mean all aspects of the above.

There is interest in well-being in increasingly urbanised societies, spanning a range of policy arenas from health and education through to local government drivers to create cohesive communities and attractive, liveable neighbourhoods. An expanding body of research is growing that suggests that urban greenspace can make an important contribution to well-being and be of therapeutic value, in the following ways:

  • Physical – urban greenspaces are places that people can use to be physically active through walking, jogging, cycling and conservation activities. Pleasant, tree-lined streets, accessible greenspaces and networks that link sites are important to an area’s green infrastructure, and may encourage people to walk and cycle rather than using the car.
  • Mental – urban greenspace has been shown to have restorative effects, reducing stress and mental fatigue and contributing to people’s enjoyment and enhancement of well-being. Researchers suggest that urban greenspace may hold vast potential in helping people during difficult times, whether they have health challenges, are socially or economically disadvantaged, or face major life changes.
  • Social – urban greenspace can contribute to meeting social goals such as community cohesion, and increasing social capital and social inclusion. This can take place through communities being involved in decision-making about their local space, and being involved in creating or maintaining greenspaces. Urban greenspaces are often used to hold a range of community events that can bring together different sections of society.
  • Ecohealth – this is an emerging concept that explores how changes in ecosystems can impact on people’s well-being. These changes might be biological, physical, social or economic. It acknowledges that the natural environment plays a crucial role in human well-being, and that humans have an inherent need for contact with nature. Research has also shown that urban biodiversity can sometimes be higher than in surrounding rural areas.

Benefits

Urban greenspace and green infrastructure can make a significant contribution to people’s overall well-being and quality of life, as part of their everyday experiences. The Park Life Report (Greenspace, 2007) found that 92% of survey respondents stated that they visit parks and greenspaces in the UK, and 55% visit a large park once a month. And 97% believe that parks and greenspaces help to create a nice place to live. The report states that there are approximately 29,000 parks and greenspaces in the UK. Urban greenspaces are an important wildlife resource, providing habitats for a range of flora and fauna.

Practical considerations

However, there can also be problems with such spaces, including antisocial behaviour, rubbish-dumping and drug-taking, and these activities can lead to reduced accessibility for many people as they become fearful of accessing such spaces. A survey found that only 18% of parks were described as in good condition (Urban Parks Forum, 2001). Better understanding is needed of how urban greenspaces are used and enjoyed, and by whom, across different age ranges, ethnicity and economic status.

Neighbourhoods Green, part-funded by the Department of Communities and Local Government, is a partnership of organisations focusing on improving the greenspaces surrounding social housing. The Urban Greenspace Task Force was established in 2001, and reported in 2002 that good quality parks and greenspaces make a critical contribution to towns and cities, creating a sense of place (Urban Greenspaces Task Force, 2002).

This and other research highlights the importance of access to greenspaces for people’s overall well-being. These spaces are now supposed to be at the centre of the renaissance of towns and cities – a key aspect in regeneration projects. CABE Space was created by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (now the Department of Communities and Local Government) to champion urban public space, particularly parks and greenspaces.

Urban greenspace is often undervalued. This is partly because of budget constraints over the past couple of decades, particularly in relation to urban parks, in which staff and maintenance have been drastically reduced. There has more recently been a move beyond valuing these spaces primarily in economic terms to gain a better understanding of the wide range and diversity of values attributed to greenspaces. In the UK, 33 million people make 2.5 billion visits to urban greenspaces each year (RCEP, 2007). There are a range of ways in which the value and contribution of urban greenspaces and the problems associated with them can be addressed. These include:

  • Involving people in decision-making and improvements to local spaces
  • Understanding how greenspace is valued and used, and by whom
  • Effective long-term maintenance and care of spaces
  • Provision of appropriate and sustainable funding.

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s report on the urban environment made a number of recommendations (RCEP, 2007), including:

  • Promoting the natural urban environment and green infrastructure through planning policy
  • Acknowledging that health and well-being are inextricably linked with the environment
  • Ensuring that the environment is placed at the heart of urban design, regeneration and management.

Case study

Social housing and greenspace

Peabody Hill Wood is a small woodland in Lambeth, inner London, situated between two social housing estates. The easiest way to get from one estate to the other is to walk through the woodland. In a partnership project between Peabody Trust (one of London’s oldest social housing associations), Forestry Commission, Forest Research and Trees for Cities (an environmental charity), Forest Research was asked to explore local residents’ views and use of the wood.

Qualitative focus group data, observational data and quantitative survey data were gathered across a range of residents on both housing estates. The discussion groups highlighted key problems, concerns and fears among residents about the safety of the woodland, and some of the antisocial behaviour, graffiti and rubbish dumping that takes place there. Discussions linked the management of the woodland with that of the buildings and estates. Residents felt there was declining use and abandonment of the area, and that they did not receive as much support as they had in the past in terms of maintenance.

Despite the initially negative responses from respondents, they went on to talk about how they used (or had used) the woodland and why it was important to them. A key benefit was having the space on their doorstep and being able to observe nature in the city – experience the changing seasons, listen to birdsong and admire the views (the wood is on a hill). The research outlines how people experience local woodland near to them and how they view it in relation to their everyday lives. It is clear that greenspace near to where people live is an especially important part of the quality of life and well-being for those who do not usually access the countryside.

The research outlined a number of implications for managers and policy-makers:

  • Better understanding is needed of people’s relationships to their local spaces, and of how people link issues of greenspace and the built environment.
  • Realising the importance of sustaining involvement and momentum, many residents in deprived areas witness projects that make short-term improvements to the area, but with insufficient funding to develop and maintain projects in the longer term.
  • Children’s and young people’s freedom to use outdoor spaces is often restricted due to concerns about their safety, or about unruly young people causing disturbance. Previous research has found that those who use greenspaces and woodlands when young become adults who use these spaces. Adults often talk about the importance of their childhood experiences of climbing trees and building dens.
  • Community participation is vital, and local communities need to be involved in making changes and improvements to their local spaces. Communities often need support and guidance to be able to do this.

Services

One of the key research themes of Forest Research’s Social and Economic Research Group is well-being and quality of life, exploring benefits of woodlands and greenspaces to people, and the governance frameworks that facilitate partnerships and participatory processes.

The Social and Economic Research Group provides advice to the Forestry Commission and forestry or greenspace sector on well-being and quality-of-life issues related to woodlands and greenspaces.

The Group can provide:

  • Advice on the design and conduct of social research
  • Research project design and management
  • Advice on social issues in forestry
  • Evaluation of social programmes
  • Advice on the design and conduct of research exploring governance and public involvement.

Further information

Greenspace (2007). The Park Life Report: the first ever public satisfaction survey of Britain’s parks and greenspaces (PDF-39K).  Greenspace.

O’Brien, E. and Snowdon, H. (2007). Health and well-being in woodlands: a case study of the Chopwell Wood Health Project. Arboricultural Journal 30, 45–60.

O’Brien, E., Foot, K. and Doick, K. (2007). Evaluating the benefits of community greenspace creation on brownfield land. Quarterly Journal of Forestry 101, 145–151.

O’Brien, E. (2006). ‘Strengthens heart and mind’: using woodlands to improve mental and physical well-being. Unasylva 57, 56–61.

O’Brien, E. (2006). Social housing and greenspace: a case study in inner London. Forestry 79, 535–549.

O’Brien, E., Greenland, M. and Snowdon, H. (2006). Using woodlands and woodland grants to improve public health. Scottish Forestry 60, 18–24.

O’Brien, E. (2006). A question of value: what do trees and forests mean to people in Vermont? Landscape Research 31, 257–275.

RCEP (2007). The Urban Environment. Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (PDF-6350K). Stationery Office, Norwich.

Urban Greenspaces Task Force (2002). Green Spaces: Better Places (PDF-1450K). Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, London.

Urban Parks Forum (2001). Public Park Assessment: a survey of local authority owned parks, focusing on parks of historic interest. Urban Parks Forum (now GreenSpace) London.