Better woodlands, better health?

Jennifer Thomson is an ESRC (1+3) PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. She is based in the Centre for Research on Environment, Society and Health (CRESH). Jennifer’s research examines the links between woodlands, health and health inequalities. For her MSc dissertation she explored the use of woodlands in urban areas of Scotland.

Jennifer Thomson

We at CRESH are continuing to explore the ways in which public green spaces – such as woods and parks – are good for our mental and physical health. Our previous work has shown that those living near green space tend to have better health and less likely to die from heart or lung disease than those living in more built up areas. We’ve also found that green spaces may have a role in reducing the health gap between richer and poorer neighbourhoods. Other researchers have emphasised the health-promoting qualities of woodlands in particular, and how they may be important places for reducing stress and increasing physical activity among those living in towns and cities where access to nature is often limited.

For my MSc dissertation I investigated whether physical woodland interventions, funded by Forestry Commission Scotland, had brought benefits to those living in urban deprived areas of Scotland. I selected four urban woodlands located in the Central Belt, two of which had recently received new footpaths, picnic benches and general maintenance and two of which had not received any investment. I carried out questionnaires with 200 woodland users across the four sites and asked them about their attitudes towards and use of the woodland. In order to know more about who tends to visit woodlands, I collected information about the woodland user eg age group, occupation and postcode. At the improved woodlands I also asked people whether there had been changes in their use of the outdoors since the enhancements had taken place.

I found that woodland improvements encouraged more positive attitudes and use of urban woodlands. More people said they felt safe and that the woodland was easier to walk around in at the enhanced sites, and were more than twice as likely to visit the woodland more than twice a week, compared to those at the non-intervention woodlands. Approximately 60 per cent of woodland users at the intervention sites reported a positive change in their behaviour since the enhancements took place. This included more visits to the woodlands, more physical activity and more time outdoors with family and friends. Some woodland users also reported increased use of green spaces in general and a small number had even started new outdoor activities. All four woodlands attracted visitors from deprived and affluent neighbourhoods; however, only 25 per cent of visitors were from the most deprived areas surrounding the woodlands, demonstrating social inequalities in usage.

This study has important implications for policies aimed at improving environment and population health. This includes Forestry Commission Scotland’s Woods In and Around Towns (WIAT) programme and Woods for Health Strategy. Such strategies are important for providing accessible, high quality, recreational woodlands where people can exercise and get away from the stresses of modern day urban living. These behaviours are thought to be key for tackling much broader public health problems, such as rising levels of obesity and poor mental health. However, in order for woodlands to have a role in reducing health inequalities, more research is required to investigate the barriers in place which restrict those living in the most deprived areas from visiting local woodlands.

This MSc study was funded by the ESRC. I am now doing a PhD which further explores the relationships between woodlands and population health in Scotland by looking at peoples’ accessibility to woodlands over a 20 year period and whether woodlands have a cumulative effect on mental health outcomes in midlife. The PhD is sponsored by the ESRC, Forestry Commission Scotland and Scottish Government.

This post originally appeared on the CRESH website. Follow CRESH on Twitter (@CRESHnews).

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