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Dialogue- issue #4

Natural Health

Words by Ellen Miles
Illustration by Amelia Rouse

Access to green space, with the physical and mental health benefits it brings, should be a human right.

What does it mean to be human? Our species evolved in symbiotic harmony with the rest of the living world, generation after generation’s survival hinging on an ability to engage with their wild surroundings. Despite the technologies created in very recent human history that (ostensibly) grant us independence from nature, our stubborn ancestral genes haven’t kept pace: we’re still hardwired to need immersion in verdure - the restorative sight of foliage, the calming scent of soil - to function, and to feel, as we should. Our ancestors’ natural habitat, though, looked very different to ours. Today, most Homo sapiens live in cities, places in which nature has become other: a thing compartmentalised and enjoyed in doses.

As urbanisation sweeps the Earth - blanketing green with grey - access to nature can no longer be taken for granted. In the UK, 2.7 million people don’t live within accessible walking distance of a green space. In America, it’s a staggering 100 million. These figures will continue to rise, unless we take action to reverse them. This growing disconnect from the natural world is attracting scientists’ attention. A mushrooming body of evidence - spanning disciplines and continents - is uncovering how essential contact with nature is to our health and happiness: as crucial as exercising, sleeping well, or eating your five-a-day. The evidence shows that green space is a mood-lifter, stress-reducer, anger-assuager, and confidence-booster.

It can even relieve and prevent debilitating mental illness and slow cognitive decline as we age. Office stafftake fewer sick days when they’re surrounded by house plants, and hospital patients recover faster if they can see foliage from their beds. Such findings support what many of us intuitively feel: nature is a panacea. This is all fantastic news for people who live in nature-rich, verdant neighbourhoods. For the millions of people living in continuous urban fabric, the outlook is less sunny. A lack of local greenery has been linked to mental illness, cognitive impairment, higher crime rates, shorter life spans and a number of serious health conditions.

Unsurprisingly, wealthier, whiter urban neighbourhoods tend to be leafier - with well-funded parks and large private gardens - whereas BAME and lower-income households are generally concentrated in areas where access to green space is limited. Yet it is precisely those in marginalised communities who need nature’s tonic most. If health is wealth, the current distribution of urban green space is making the rich richer and the poor poorer. An injection of plant life can help redress these socioeconomic gaps: a recent study in Toronto, Canada, found that adding 11 more average-sized trees per block can provide residents with health benefits comparable to earning CA$20,000 more a year.

All these facts converge into a painful irony: in step with our shrinking access to nature is a growing understanding of its importance to our wellbeing. Worldwide lockdowns in response to Covid-19 saw people turning to nature like never before. Under “house arrest”, as life slowed and our usual distractions were suddenly off-limits, our dormant biophilia - innate, genetically-encoded affinity for nature - awakened. Garden centres received a record demand for seeds. People flocked to online foraging groups. Google searches for bird identification increased tenfold. We collectively talked about, appreciated and used parks more than ever before.

Coronavirus, far from being the “great leveller” described by the UK government, shone a spotlight on myriad social inequalities, including comorbidities exacerbated by a lifetime of nature deprivation (in particular, respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease and diabetes), and the disparity in access to green space, with inner-city tower block residents describing lockdown as a “living hell”. All this - sharpened by my years of environmental activism - galvanised me to found Nature is a Human Right: the campaign to make access to green space an official human right.To achieve this, we’re attempting systems change at every level: lobbying the UN to enshrine access to green space in international human rights law; working with policy-makers to devise strategies for maintaining and increasing urban nature in their constituencies; and empowering citizens to take action to protect and create green spaces. Outofthe current crisis comes hope:the world wants to fight for positive change, to “build back better”. Access to nature is a foundation stone of a fairer future. Let’s make it a human right.

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