Why we all need to get out more

Have you connected with the outdoors more during the Covid-19 pandemic? We talked to Catharine Ward Thompson, Professor of Landscape Architecture, about why that’s important, socio-spatial inequality and the idea of 20-minute neighbourhoods.

Catherine Ward Thompson and the Meadows
Catherine Ward Thomspon; the Meadows

When the rain is lashing down and the trees are swaying a little too violently, it may seem counter-intuitive to leave the house. But Catharine Ward Thompson, Edinburgh’s Professor of Landscape Architecture, urges us to dig out our woollen sweaters and stick on some sensible shoes and get outside, whatever the elements throw at us.

“While accessing it can be a challenge in the winter, daytime sunlight is good for our circadian rhythms. These are the rhythms that help our hormonal systems to function healthily. If we’re indoors all the time, we make it harder for those things to work well. So, being outdoors in winter, even if it’s just for 15 or 20 minutes during the day, will help us sleep better at night and our bodies to function better,” Professor Ward Thompson explains.

The Director of Edinburgh research centre OPENspace has been researching why inclusive access to the outdoors matters for 20 years, contributing to policy and research on the subject for the Scottish Government and the World Health Organization. In recent years, OPENspace has been focusing on the links between getting outside and health and wellbeing. It’s a topic that was already attracting interest prior to the pandemic but has perhaps been brought into sharper focus as changing lifestyles in a Covid-19 world have prompted many of us to re-evaluate what the outdoors means to us.  

“A combination of concerns about Covid-19 restrictions and anxieties about the pandemic in general has meant that a lot of people have started to pay much more attention to the kind of environments they have access to outdoors, and the experience they have when they go outdoors. For example, what’s close by that they can walk to or get to safely, or what environments can they use to relax and de-stress, and where are the places they can meet friends or colleagues safely?” Professor Ward Thompson says.

“The kind of research I, and colleagues, have undertaken, for some years, if not decades, has underlined that getting outdoors is good for our health in multiple ways - social, psychological, physical - and always has been. But we’re perhaps more aware now of what that can do for us when faced with Covid restrictions, when a number of other options for doing things have been closed to us.”

Covid-19 has exposed inequalities

For many of us, the opportunity to get to know our local neighbourhood has been one of mindful rediscovery; an opportunity to observe new and changing details held within the landscape, and to reconnect with nature. However, for those lacking nearby access to green spaces, that sense of comfort or escape that the outdoors can provide, alongside the proven health and wellbeing benefits, can be absent.

“One of the sad things that we know about Scotland, indeed the UK, is that not everyone has got nice attractive spaces outside their front door; or their back door,” explains Professor Ward Thompson. “These inequalities, particularly in relation to accessing natural environments, have been exacerbated under Covid. In terms of people’s behaviour, we’ve found that people from the lower socioeconomic groups have accessed natural environments less than before Covid.

“And, perhaps less surprisingly, people who are older, or people who have underlying health problems, have also accessed natural environments less. Some of that is understandable but some of that reflects the fact that there are what we call socio-spatial inequalities. So, people who live in more deprived areas also tend to have less good quality green space or natural environments near where they live, and they also often have less time within their busy lives to access these.”

How do we improve our urban environments?

Water of Leith
Water of Leith

For Professor Ward Thompson and colleagues working in this field, paying attention to the amount of greenspace (and bluespace, referring to rivers and coastal areas) in urban areas can provide a pathway towards reducing the spatial inequality between people, and address environmental injustice. But it can take significant time and investment to get right.

“In Edinburgh, the Water of Leith, and the walkway along that, is very important, and it’s something the Edinburgh city planners had to plan long term – over many decades – to achieve success. That’s just an example of the kind of thing that I think many of us are interested in seeing across our urban environments – a sort of green infrastructure that could do multiple things. It would mean that everybody would have some kind of green or natural environment close to where they live, that they could walk to and use for active travel.

“If you’ve got more green-blue space and natural environment, and less paved area in the city, you’ve got a better hydrological system, you’re mitigating the likelihood of floods, you’re creating areas where biodiversity can be supported, potential wildlife corridors – all of these things. Where there is very little green space at present, we need to think about 'how can we create that?' Think again about some of those priorities.”

 “I know the Scottish Land Commission is looking at vacant and derelict land at the moment. So, here’s an opportunity to do something quick and short term or relatively immediate. I think there are other quick wins as well - temporary road closures you can green up a bit and then maybe they can become permanent.”

Visions for greener towns and cities

There are some encouraging signs that the Scottish Government is committed to improving the quality of public spaces in urban environments, and the research of OPENspace and others in the field have helped bring this issue to the fore. The Scottish Government introduced an indicator on access to green and blue spaces to its National Performance Framework in 2013/14, which for Professor Ward Thompson is a sign that the ambition is there, even if progress has been slow.

In 2019, 65.6% of adults lived within a five-minute walk of their nearest green or blue space, compared to 65.3% in 2018. However, that figure becomes reduced for those living in deprived areas, those aged over 75, and people from minority ethnic groups.

“I know that the Government and Public Health Scotland are interested in the idea of 20-minute neighbourhoods; the idea that, in an ideal community, you would have within walking distance of your home everything that is essential for a good quality life – not just shops or primary care support, but also green and natural environments,” reveals Professor Catharine Ward Thompson.

“Green space where young and old, parents with very small children, people who are old and frail, could all access. A place where you could bump into neighbours in the street and some kind of place where you can have a chat with a neighbour. I think the social isolation people, and particularly older people, have suffered under Covid has been really difficult. Having a place with a bench or two, an attractive place to sit to chat to a neighbour, a place to go to for a short walk – these things can make a big difference.”

Collaboration is needed

There are, however, obstacles preventing such a vision being realised, despite what we may have learned during the Covid-19 pandemic about the importance of local community. An issue that spans so many policy areas requires joined-up thinking and long-term commitment, which can be difficult when positive results are rarely immediate.

“One of the challenges is that it’s a cross-policy issue. Public health is interested, planners are interested, people in housing are interested but it needs joining up the dots so that the decisions are made on the ground. The benefits, in terms of better health or reduced non-communicable disease burden, will be felt long-term. It’s not like stopping smoking in public places where we saw an almost instant effect. It doesn’t mean to say we shouldn’t do it. We definitely should. But it’s a harder sell in some ways because you get fewer quick wins. There’s a lot of goodwill there but it’s just overcoming the inertia to achieve it in practice,” says Professor Ward Thompson.

“I think Covid has perhaps given us an opportunity to rethink some of the priorities but the challenge is, when everyone is very keen to get the economy back up and growing, not to just revert to doing what we did before and expecting a different result, because the green space benefits certainly won’t happen that way.”

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