Until the 2010s, most research devoted to how nature could benefit public health and well-being treated natural landscapes as homogeneous. The European Centre for Environment and Human Health pioneered research which examined the specific benefits of blue spaces to human health and well-being and underlined them as a beneficial public health resource nationally and internationally.
Growing the evidence
The European Centre for Environment and Human Health begun its interest in this area by using its core ESIF funding to investigate population-level associations between coastal living and good human health, and how relocating to coastal areas might affect physical and mental health alongside qualitative research for example looking at coastal environments as therapeutic landscapes or settings for beneficial social interactions. Through the ESRC-funded Beyond Greenspace project, the centre begun to investigate the health effects of varied bluespace environments of diverse qualities.
Building on this initial work, the centre led the Horizon 2020-funded BlueHealth project which investigated the links between urban blue spaces, climate, and health across Europe. This combined interdisciplinary approaches to examine how well-being might be promoted through the development of blue infrastructure. The centre’s efforts in this project centred around population-level international comparisons of the varied effects of recreation in bluespace on mental and physical health, innovative research on the effects of virtual reality bluespace in conferring beneficial health effects, and contributions to several localised interventions redesigning blue spaces for health and well-being gains.
Local, national and international practical and policy impacts
The centre has been successful in highlighting the beneficial role that coastal environments can play in public health at an international strategic level, for example through its contributions to a World Health Organisation policy briefing on health, the global ocean, and marine resources. Similarly, in a chapter for the , the centre’s research on the beneficial role of coastal and marine environments on health and well-being was highlighted.
The BlueHealth project specifically produced several outputs of use to landscape planners internationally such as its ‘toolbox’ of open-access surveying tools to aid evidence-based design of blue spaces internationally, international best-practice case studies, and a on planning and design for water, health, and well-being in cities.
Through the methods employed in the BlueHealth project, the centre has also advised on Natural England’s methodology for monitoring people’s interactions with nature in their recent national-level surveying efforts.
BlueHealth also led to several localised impacts. Our research on a waterside park in Plymouth showed demonstrable well-being benefits after relatively modest intervention; the city council with whom we worked on this have scaled-up the methods to evaluate parts of Plymouth’s National Marine Park project. Further BlueHealth efforts across Europe have led to the redevelopment of the Parque da Cidade in the city of Guimarães, coastal improvements in Kopliranna in Tallinn, provided relaxation spaces at Anne Kanal in Tartu, improved access to the Besos River in Barcelona leading to potentially considerable health cost savings, and restored a modernist spring in Catalonia.
The centre continues to build on its strengths in this research area to generate impact. A new Horizon Europe funded project will look at nature-based social prescribing interventions more broadly, but including bluespace-based sites in Europe with the aim of scaling-up ‘blue prescribing’ by integrating these offerings with healthcare systems across the continent. At a national level, a Wellcome-funded studentship has built on the virtual reality work conducted in BlueHealth to inform the BBC’s new sound effects website and shaped the acoustic design of the BBC’s ‘mindful escapes’ miniseries.