I think our culture thinks spending time in nature is nice or a luxury or a kind of commodity or privilege, when actually […] it is a right, and it’s an important part of public health.

Lucy Jones

Our 2022 NHS Forest conference was held on 19 October, on the theme of Biodiversity and Resilience. It drew over 250 participants from across the UK and beyond, to hear talks from speakers from the fields of conservation, health, and landscape architecture, and crucially, to draw on the links between these.

The more biodiverse our ecosystems, the more resilient they tend to be – to climate change, invasive species, habitat loss and other threats. And the more biodiverse our surroundings, the more resilient our own communities can become, too, as these ecosystems can provide fresh, nutritious food; cleaner air and water; and support the pollinators that sustain our crops, gardens and wider natural environments.

While concerns around the climate crisis are widespread, there is now a growing awareness of the importance of biodiversity, and its impacts on human health and wellbeing. Interaction with natural landscapes has always been a vital element of human culture. It can reduce incidence of disease, support mental wellbeing, and help us adapt to stresses and anxiety – an ancient remedy for what we might see as very modern afflictions

So how can healthcare professionals promote biodiversity for the benefit of their patients, colleagues and the wider community? What interventions can be made in healthcare settings to support the natural world, at a time when the NHS is arguably more stretched than ever before? And how can health staff facilitate engagement with these biodiverse spaces, including making them part of their own practice?

Why our Minds Need the Wild

Keynote speaker Lucy Jones set the scene for the afternoon, narrating a virtual walk through the green spaces near her home, and explaining how each little interaction – whether ‘soft fascination’ inspired by gently shaking leaves, or ‘micro-awe’ generated by giant, ancient trees – can activate different parts of our brains.

Lucy’s ‘walk’ was based on research from her recent book, Losing Eden: Why our Minds Need the Wild, which explores the benefits of spending time in nature. Evidence shows that it is not simply that green spaces are ‘nice’ to be in – but that our bodies interact with elements in the natural world in a way that connects us to our ancient lifestyles. Micro bacteria in soils, for example, have a serotonin-like antidepressant effect, while petrichor – the metallic smell emitted by the earth after rain – contains compounds which trigger the areas of the brain associated with wellbeing and relaxation. Listening to birdsong has been demonstrated to reduce levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone.

Moss. Photo by Aaron Cloward on Unsplash
Moss. Photo by Aaron Cloward on Unsplash

When taken as a whole, there is powerful evidence that the fullness of a biodiverse ecosystem, and our physical interaction with it through touch and sound and smell, can boost our resilience. But health professionals should note that we don’t need to be fully immersed in vast forests on mountain ranges for our bodies to benefit; these experiences can be made accessible to all, even on built-up sites:

“If nature is threaded through built environments and urban areas more than it is now, then there would be more opportunities for awe […] A lot of my awe experiences come from micro animals, moss, lichen – really common species that are all over the place.”

Lucy Jones

Resilience is in our Nature

Dom Higgins, Head of Health and Education at The Wildlife Trusts, picked up this thread in his presentation, which referenced the government’s recent Dasgupta Review. This paper identifies nature as our most valuable asset – but Dom explained that “despite our economies being embedded within nature, it is not valued by our current economic system.”

Throughout Dom’s career, he has seen a shift – to outdoor spaces now being valued by the healthcare sector (including through green prescribing), and to people now being central to the aims of the environment sector – including within The Wildlife Trusts’ own strategy, where “people are prioritised alongside wildlife; they’re the same side of that coin. And […] we’ve got these goals where people and wildlife are absolutely central.”

The Wildlife Trusts - Strategic goals. Dom Higgins
The Wildlife Trusts – Strategic goals

He remarked that while nature is essential for human health and resilience, humans are also crucial in protecting nature.

“Protecting nature will only happen when local communities are supported and empowered to become agents of change […] Let’s just remember our resilience. Remember that we need to spend our own time in nature. And if we all reach one person, and they reach one, we’ll have an army of people that will defend nature as well as get those benefits.”

Dom Higgins

The Nature of Landscape Design

Our third speaker, Landscape Architect Andrew Tempany of RSK Group, continued this theme, emphasising that “the idea that everything is connected is the cornerstone of successful regenerative and nature-based design approaches.” Quoting the 19th century conservationist John Muir, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it’s hitched to everything else in the universe,” Andrew made the case for nature-based solutions in designing accessible, resilient, regenerative spaces.

Nature-based and regenerative design - Andrew Tempany, RSK Group
Nature-based and regenerative design – Andrew Tempany, RSK Group

“Nature-based solutions are, I would argue, really at the core of delivering regenerative design outcomes. They give back multiple benefits and create fairer and more equitable societies.”

Andrew Tempany

People Permaculture at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre

The second half of the conference featured speakers from four NHS Forest sites and projects. Each has found creative ways to green outdoor spaces with minimal funding, or ways to encourage healthcare staff to engage with nature even when there is no greenery on-site.

Ginnie Abubakar spoke to us from Mount Vernon Cancer Centre, one of three hospitals that featured in CSH’s Space to Breathe study in 2019. The study identified staff’s desire to spend more time in green space – and the wellbeing benefits for those that do.

An NHS Forest Nature Recovery Ranger has been based at Mount Vernon since April 2021, and one of her most successful projects was a site-wide gardening competition which “engaged staff’s imagination and gave them permission […] to literally get stuck in. In some cases, she would specifically tell staff, ‘yes, you are allowed to do this,’” explained Ginnie.

The initiative has transformed staff’s perception of the site’s outdoor spaces, and given them permission – in both spoken form, and through the creation of signposted, accessible walkways and mown paths – to access these biodiverse sanctuaries.

Ginnie emphasised that patience and time are key factors in green space work, as is proper consultation.

Volunteers plug plant wildflowers at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre, London
Volunteers plug plant wildflowers at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre, London. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

“This is not a quick fix project. This has taken years to grow, it’s developed year on year, and it’s been fantastic to be involved. But if I was to pick one thing that was particularly important to the success, I would root out conversations, and that is face to face conversations, which all too often can be neglected.”

Ginnie Abubakar

Lessons from the Meadows Health and Wellbeing Routes

Space to Breathe was also the inspiration behind the second featured project: Meadows Health and Wellbeing Routes, which link Welsh hospitals with nearby wildflower meadows. The project was carried out by CSH in partnership with Plantlife Cymru, and speakers from both organisations explained how the initiative was set up, and the rationale behind it.

“Did you know that looking at a wildflower meadow for just 6 seconds can lower your blood pressure?”

Cass Crocker, Plantlife Cymru

The project also brought biodiversity into the hospitals, for those staff and patients who were unable to access the meadow routes, through large-scale meadow-inspired artwork, and a digital StoryMap.

From Green Wing to Green Gym

Joining us from Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital, Steve Lowe and Toni Poole explained why they had started their ‘Green Gym’, through which healthcare staff to volunteer on local conservation projects. Steve drew on his own experience as a former ICU nurse and now as an ecologist, as well as his own mental health struggles in the past.

“There’s lots of proof that things like seeing birds near our homes or hearing birds, walking through green spaces along rivers, actually reduce stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression. Wild places can encourage our minds and bodies to recover from illness; I’m living proof of that.”

Steve Lowe

The Green Gym brings together staff and their families from all backgrounds, including many who ordinarily have limited access to green space. It has supported those who are recovering from surgery, living with chronic conditions such as arthritis, and going through difficult situations in their personal life. Staff have supported wildlife habitats through litter picking and tree planting, while learning about biodiversity and conservation. But, Steve notes, the most important thing is that people show up, spend time outdoors, and socialise – if they attend but don’t cut back vegetation or plant a tree, they are still benefitting greatly.

Staff on a litter pick organised as part of Newcastle Hospitals' Green Gym. Photo: Steve Lowe/Toni Poole. All rights reserved.
Staff on a litter pick organised as part of Newcastle Hospitals’ Green Gym. Photo: Steve Lowe/Toni Poole. All rights reserved.

A Time to Reflect

Our final speaker was Karen James, who founded Glenfield Hospital’s Secret Garden. She screened a short video featuring interviews with volunteers and staff who had been placed in the Leicester garden during the pandemic, each of whom spoke movingly of how this green space had supported patients, visitors and the staff themselves during an incredibly difficult time.

One staff member commented on colleagues who had been redeployed to the Covid ward.

“They’ve come [into the garden] and they’ve said it’s like walking into another world. The garden does it itself. It picks you up and it rocks you and it puts you back. If you’ve had a bad day, come here and it puts you back on track.”

Jane Stevens, Home Warden, Glenfield Hospital

The reflections from those featured in the film really put into practice what had been heard throughout the afternoon’s sessions, consolidating the links between biodiversity and resilience, and the potential of the NHS estate as a healthcare asset.

The Centre for Sustainable Healthcare’s Green Space for Health Programme is funded by the Trees Call to Action Fund. The fund was developed by Defra in partnership with the Forestry Commission and is being delivered by the Heritage Fund.

Banner image: Rafay Ansari via Unsplash

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