School of Population Health

Could a walk in the park be just what the doctor ordered?

Image - Xiao Feng

‘Nature prescriptions’, such as a nature-based walking and community gardening recommended by a health professional, are among the strategies that could help mitigate the adverse health impacts of the climate crisis, but more targeted research is needed to guide action, say researchers. 

In a new editorial published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, Population Health and Environment Research Lab (PowerLab.site) researchers from UNSW School of Population Health and University of Wollongong say everyone has an important role to play in ameliorating the threat of climate change. 

The recent IPCC report and UN Emissions Gap Report 2021 and world leaders meeting during the high-profile COP26 in Glasgow, all point to the urgency to act on the climate crisis. The question now facing the global community is how do we act fast enough and with the greatest impact? 

Co-author Xiaoqi Feng, Associate Professor in Urban Health and Environment at UNSW School of Population Health and PowerLab Founding Co-Director says population health researchers have a pivotal role in addressing the greatest global challenge in the 21st century. 

“The health impacts of the climate crisis, such as rising temperatures and poor air quality are well established, as well as that people tend to be healthier in areas with higher levels of ‘greenness’,” said Associate Professor Feng. 

“We now need to prioritise testing scalable and implementable solutions in urban environments, such as restoration of trees and creating green spaces, to support health,” she said. 

The researchers call for investment in more robust research, such as randomised controlled trials, to ensure urban greening strategies, including access to these, are based on the best possible evidence of what works, where, when and for whom, to ensure everyone reaps the rewards.

By 2030, the UN Sustainable Development Goal 11.7 aims to ‘provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.’ 

According to the authors, robust research can help achieve this target by identifying evidence-based, culturally and climatically sensitive guidelines on what types of green space can support health.    

For example, early research by Associate Professor Xiaoqi Feng in Australia shows that about 81% of adults would be likely to visit green space more if their doctor said it would be good for their health. Nature prescriptions typically involve a physician, social worker or other health care provider giving a written recommendation for a person to spend time in nature. 

“There is real market potential for nature prescriptions, yet there is a dearth of evidence-based guidance and robust evaluation of these in urban environments,” said Associate Professor Feng. 

“We now need to co-design randomised trials that define which nature prescriptions are accessible, affordable, acceptable and effective for enabling regular contact with nature in safe, positive and sustained ways for people who did not have this before,” she said. 

One in four Australians feel lonely on three or more days a week, putting them at increased risk of chronic conditions such as depression, heart disease, and dementia. Recent research by Associate Professor Feng and colleagues at University of Wollongong shows people’s odds of loneliness could fall by up to half if cities hit 30% green space targets. 

“We cannot under-estimate the value of investing in and implementing, sooner rather than later, evidence-informed strategies that are proven to be good for both people’s wellbeing and the planet,” said Associate Professor Feng. “Our efforts can still be consequential.” 

Read the paper here.

Read the UNSW School of Population Health’s response to COP26.  

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