Greater levels of access to green spaces could have a dramatic impact on people’s health that it could help reduce lifespan gaps between the rich and the poor, the research shows.
A study examining various geographic areas, levels of wealth, and the proximity to private gardens and natural spaces such as woodlands, heathlands, and open water, found that each 10 per cent increase in access to private gardens and natural space is linked to a 7 per cent fall in the incidence of early death among those under 65 years old.
The research team, made up of experts from Massey University in New Zealand, the USDA Forest Service, and the US Fred Hutchinson Cancer Centre in Seattle, said their findings “could provide an additional public-health tool to reduce the large health inequities that exist for deprived populations, indigenous peoples, and other ethnic minorities”.
While there is a large body of evidence already linking spending time in natural environments with positive health outcomes, the research is the first to explicitly examine whether access to nature protects against an earlier-than-expected death.
In order to assess whether this is the case, the team used the measure of “years of life lost” (YLL), and drew on YLL data from the 2016 Scottish Burden of Disease report, which recorded the gap between expected and actual lifespan for men and women aged under 65 who were resident in Scotland, UK, at time of death.
The team then mapped out various “data zones”, which plotted geographical areas of between 500-1,000 households each, using physical boundaries and natural communities, which they said ended up dividing areas into units with similar social characteristics.
Using Ordnance Survey mapping, they then assessed the residents of each data zone’s access to natural space or private gardens, measured in square metres.
The researchers found that the areas with the poorest people studied also had the lowest average percentage cover of natural space and gardens. People living in these areas had the highest levels of ill health.
Increased access to natural space was also associated with a reduction in the gap in YLL between the most and least deprived areas.
“Even moderate levels of natural space seemed to make a difference,” the team said.
“In practice, not everyone can live in an area with a high percentage of green or natural space; however, this does not mean that even small amounts of such areas are not beneficial,” they said in the paper, published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health – a title published by the British Medical journal.
But the research team cautioned that their observational study can’t establish cause and effect.
They also acknowledged that they didn’t have information on individual lifestyle behaviour and personal economic circumstances, or how much people used their local natural space or its quality, all of which may have influenced their findings.
Nonetheless, they said their findings echo those of other studies.
They concluded: “An increased amount of natural/green spaces within local areas has the potential to reduce the disparity in YLL between the most and least income-deprived areas.
“Natural spaces and private gardens should be an important feature in any building/ development planning.”