Watch the full 2021 NHS Forest conference

Over 350 people attended our first virtual NHS Forest conference, which featured keynote speakers Judy Ling Wong, Becca Lovell and Suzanne Tarrant, and showcased some of the most inspiring and innovative green space projects on healthcare sites in the UK and beyond.

The keynote speech from Judy Ling Wong, Honorary President of the Black Environment Network, was an inspirational opener to the afternoon, in which she encouraged people to think broadly about the concept of green space, the importance of collaboration and the need to change the environment for everyone in the community in order to achieve a truly equitable recovery.

Presentation by Judy Ling Wong at the 2021 NHS Forest conference
Presentation by Judy Ling Wong at the 2021 NHS Forest conference

We should think of every grey space as having the potential of being part of the forest floor… The best way to shape inclusive policy and actions to deliver equity is co-creation.

Judy Ling Wong Black Environment Network

Judy will be representing gender and race at COP26, the climate change summit, in Glasgow later this month.

Dr Becca Lovell, from the University of Exeter Medical School, presented the latest evidence showing the connections between nature and health. While emphasising that greener living environments are healthier living environments, she also explained that, “we are getting to the stage where we have a substantial body of evidence describing how nature relates to health – but we still only have some pieces of the jigsaw because everybody has a unique relationship with nature.”

Presentation by Becca Lovell at the 2021 NHS Forest conference
Presentation by Becca Lovell at the 2021 NHS Forest conference

Returning to the theme of the conference, Dr Lovell said that while green spaces can contribute to reducing health inequalities, “health benefits from green spaces come from their ecological state, social state, quality, qualities and characteristics – it is highly contextual. We need a diversity of spaces to use at different times for different purposes.”

Nature is fundamental to everything we do in health sciences, the way we promote good health, and the way we prevent ill health.

Dr Becca Lovell University of Exeter

Next up, CSH’s Green Space and Health Programme Director, Carey Newson, provided an overview of the work that has been carried out through the NHS Forest project in 2021. Carey shared our map of more than 200 NHS Forest sites, which between them support over 77,500 trees. In the next planting season, we’ll be adding a further 10,000 saplings to healthcare sites around the UK.

Carey introduced our Nature Recovery Rangers, a pilot programme for the NHS Forest which has seen three rangers embedded in hospitals in London, Liverpool and Bristol. The rangers, along with the green space leads at each site, took questions from the audience on topics such as No Mow May, involving children and young people in green space work, and the importance of buy-in from directors and decision makers when planting trees. They also highlighted the importance of working with volunteers and community groups to ensure projects are successful, sustainable and have good levels of engagement. You can learn more about our Nature Recovery Rangers in this short film.

Presentation by Carey Newson at the 2021 NHS Forest conference
Presentation by Carey Newson at the 2021 NHS Forest conference

This will benefit our patients … because you’re giving them the opportunity to come outside, get the fresh air, be in nature, and that’s going to be part of their rehab journey.

Participant in the Nature Recovery Rangers film

In 2019, CSH carried out research into healthcare staff and wellbeing, and barriers to accessing green space. As a result of this work, published in our Space to Breathe report, this year we have run a series of outdoor workplace wellbeing sessions for NHS staff. This was led by Natural Academy in a series of workshops called NatureWell, which promotes nature connection. The programme, run at five hospitals in England was introduced by CSH’s Athene Rice and Michéal Connors, the director of Natural Academy.

In order to ensure the sustainability of the programme and enable it to expand, two staff members from each hospital are being trained to lead nature connection sessions for their colleagues. Athene noted that it’s not just staff who benefit from the NatureWell sessions; they also have a knock-on effect on how they engage with patients.

Consciously choosing to notice the office’s natural surroundings, feeling more positive about how to facilitate patients’ engagement with nature.

NatureWell participant
Word cloud associated with the NatureWell sessions
Word cloud associated with the NatureWell sessions

Delegates were then given the opportunity to practice nature connection for themselves during a guided mindfulness exercise led by clinical psychologist and ecotherapist Suzanne Tarrant. She explained that many of us are now seeking to heal our relationship with nature, as we begin to understand that what we do to nature, we do to ourselves. Participants were invited to use an anchor object from nature – such as a stone, branch or feather – to help them connect to an outdoor space.

Nature connection and mindfulness session, led by Suzanne Tarrant
Nature connection and mindfulness session, led by Suzanne Tarrant

The next session introduced representatives from three healthcare sites who use innovative food growing projects to benefit the health and wellbeing of patients, staff and the local community. Highbury Community Garden, at Highbury Hospital in Nottingham, which was developed six years ago by Occupational Therapist Claire Blakey, works to build links with the wider community to ensure a smooth transition back to the community for mental health inpatients. Lindsay Allen gave a presentation on the Higher Ground Rooftop Farm at Boston Medical Centre, which grows up to 2,700kg of fruit and veg per year. This goes to the ‘Food Pantry’, a service for food insecure hospital patients. The farm is visible from the wards, so patients that can’t access it outdoors can still connect with is through the windows.

Higher Ground Farm at the Boston Medical Center. Presentation at the 2021 NHS Forest conference
Higher Ground Farm at the Boston Medical Center. Presentation at the 2021 NHS Forest conference.

Finally, Dr Shuo Zhang from the Lambeth GP Food Co-op was joined in conversation by Thomas, a stroke survivor who was referred to the food growing scheme. During the Covid-19 lockdowns, the co-op’s buddy scheme sent Thomas seed packets and set up regular calls, which made a huge difference in his wellbeing. He continues to volunteer at the Jennie Lee Garden at King’s College Hospital, and credits it with speeding up his recovery and reducing his dependence on painkillers.

NHS Forest Awards

The afternoon concluded with the announcement of the winners of this year’s NHS Forest Awards. These were presented by Miriam Dobson, CSH’s Green Space Outreach Officer.

Read more about each of the award winners here.

It was an inspirational event highlighting the vast range of ways that nature and healthcare can be used in tandem to create vibrant, healthy and ecologically thriving environments, and to ensure a more equitable recovery for all in the years ahead.

Further reading:

Climate Reframe: An open database of BAME climate experts and campaigners

Nature Prescription Handbook: From the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter

This project was funded by the Government’s Green Recovery Challenge Fund. The fund was developed by Defra and its Arm’s-Length Bodies. It is being delivered by The National Lottery Heritage Fund in partnership with Natural England, the Environment Agency and Forestry Commission.

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