Can natural infrastructure combat health inequalities?

Posted on 20th May 2024

A new £1.5 million project is aiming to understand how ‘natural infrastructure’ might help to reduce health inequalities in the UK.

Led by Dr Ben Wheeler and funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research, the five-year study will assess how actions and policies based on changing the natural environment might help to reduce gaps in health between places and populations in the UK.

The research is specifically focusing on ‘green’ and ‘blue’ infrastructure, a broad umbrella of natural features that include open spaces such as parks and beaches, smaller networks like footpaths through woods and fields, and highly local forms of nature such as street trees.

Kicking off with a review of existing evidence, the project is working with partners including local authorities and environmental agencies to understand how a community’s environment, health, and social characteristics are linked. It will analyse a series of large datasets to build geographical models that can be interrogated and shared.

These outputs will then feed into models that estimate the impacts of making changes to natural infrastructure on health inequalities.

Dr Ben Wheeler said: “We’re really excited to start this project and reveal more about how best to plan and manage our natural environmental infrastructure. For example, if we plant trees everywhere across a city, but plant more trees in socio-economically deprived areas, could this provide a fairer distribution of cooling during dangerous heat waves? These are the questions we’re hoping to answer and we’ve assembled an amazing team of partners to make sure the research can be as useful as possible.”

Many people instinctively feel that natural environments are good for health, and over a decade of research at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health has shown how spending time in nature can provide opportunities for exercise, rest, and relaxation.

Yet in some areas, evidence is unclear or lacking in quality. This project will help to strengthen our understanding and provide clearer guidance for national governments and local authorities – who have already started to consider the links between nature and health in their planning decisions.

You can find out more about the study, which is funded by an NIHR Population Health Career Scientist Award, on the project page here.

The project includes collaboration with Natural England, Public Health Dorset, the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, Natural Resources Wales, the Town and Country Planning Association and Forest Research. It will also work closely with colleagues at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the Technical University of Denmark.

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