Exeter in new £7m consortium to boost nature’s impact on health inequalities

Posted on 29th July 2021

A new consortium involving the University of Exeter has been awarded more than £7.1 million from the UK Prevention Research Partnership (UKPRP) to investigate the impact that nature can have in helping to prevent and reduce health inequalities in urban areas.

It is well known that health is shaped by social and political decision-making, with poorer health outcomes often experienced amongst, for example, ethnic minorities and people who are geographically isolated or socio-economically marginalised. Research has also shown that experiences of urban nature can benefit health, particularly when accessible to all. The project will seek to explore how accessing parks and other natural spaces impacts these inequalities

The Consortium, ‘GroundsWell: Community-engaged and Data-informed Systems Transformation of Urban Green and Blue Space for Population Health’ will explore how transforming cities with nature can reduce health inequalities, primarily around chronic and non-infectious diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and mental health.

The consortium is led by Queen’s University Belfast, University of Edinburgh and University of Liverpool and also includes the universities of Glasgow, Cranfield, Liverpool John Moore’s University, and Lancaster.

Over the five-year project, the interdisciplinary team will develop innovative approaches to work with communities where there are high levels of health inequalities. They will work with communities as key partners to develop and implement ways to improve health inequalities and prevent a range of chronic illnesses through harnessing the positive impact of nature.

Dr Ruth Hunter, from the Centre of Public Health at Queen’s University Belfast and Groundswell Co-Director, alongside Professor Ruth Jepson, from the University of Edinburgh and Professor Sarah Rodgers, from the University of Liverpool, said: “There is strong evidence that natural environments within urban areas, such as parks, woodlands (green spaces) as well as lakes and beaches (blue spaces), have positive impacts on health.

“These urban green and blue spaces could be huge assets for protecting and equalising health if they were available, accessible, valued and well-used, particularly by less advantaged groups. The problem is that they are not, which is what this project aims to address.”

UKPRP supports multidisciplinary teams looking at ways to prevent non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, poor mental health, obesity, cancer and diabetes. Non-communicable diseases make up the majority of illnesses in the UK and account for an estimated 89 per cent of all deaths.

Professor Kevin Fenton, London Regional Director for Public Health England and Chair of the UKPRP Scientific Advisory Board, said: “UKPRP is an important and timely programme that we need to address health inequalities and prevent the onset of non-communicable disease.

“The projects funded under this programme are pushing the boundaries of prevention research by taking multidisciplinary approaches to addressing the complexities of population health, with the aim of improving people’s lives and health.

“As we look to build back fairer from the pandemic, the creation of healthy communities and places is a key priority.”

The University of Exeter team will focus on working with policy and practice at all scales (e.g. national to local) to address how greenspace decisions are made, and if, and how health impacts are prioritised in those processes. They will explore the various motivations and drivers, and conceptions of responsibility, agency and accountability held by key stakeholders in decision making. University of Exeter lead Dr Becca Lovell said:

“Despite growing recognition of their importance for health, there are still serious challenges to effective decision making regarding the use, preservation, and promotion of green and blue spaces. We will work with both policy and practice stakeholders, as well as local communities to explore how we can better make decisions about this important societal resource”.

The team will also explore how to meaningfully involve communities in decision making. University of Exeter research team member, Dr Sarah Bell, said:

“This is also a great opportunity to develop approaches that support participation in greenspace decision-making in ways that are meaningful to, and driven by, more marginalised community members and which acknowledge problematic histories of neglect or exclusion around urban green and blue space access”.

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