Nature, Health and Well-being

There is often (well-justified) criticism of government departments and state agencies for a lack of joined-up thinking. We only have to think of juvenile offenders slipping between the gaps of social services, the education system and the criminal justice system, or farming policy clashing with environmental policy. While numerous strategy and policy documents call for co-ordination, it generally falls short in practice.

Two Irish state agencies, one of them the largest in the country, have bucked this trend. The HSE and the Environmental Protection Agency are collaborating on research and initiatives that explore the connection between our natural environment and the health and well-being of our citizens. A conference last week offered an opportunity to explore, in the words of Laura Burke, Director of the EPA, the intrinsic link between a healthy environment and healthy lives.

As Stephanie O’Keeffe, HSE Director of Health and Well-being noted in her welcoming address, environmentally sustainable development has a direct impact on health, recognised by UN Sustainable Development Goal 3: Good Health and Well-being. Professor Michael Depledge described how food, water and a host of other physical resources from local ecosystems have sustained us throughout human history, although in the modern world, we now rely increasingly on resources garnered worldwide. He then described how the environment is potentially also key to providing psychological restoration, inspiration and tranquillity to help maintain our mental health and wellbeing. A number of contributors referred to research on the link between nature (green and blue spaces) and mental health.

In his powerful address, Dr David Pencheon, head of NHS Sustainable Development Unit NHS England / Public Health England highlighted how climate change is a health issue, not just and environmental one. Climate change damages people, communities and systems, illustrated by the premature deaths of between 30,000 and 60,000 people as a result of Europe’s heat wave in 2003, especially in France. Addressing such profound system changes requires profound interdisciplinary research and aligned inter-sectoral measurement, accountability and action.

However, as Jock Martin of the European Environment Agency noted, the EU Public Research budget 1994-2013 allocated 97 Billion euros on new technologies or ‘products’ and only 625 million Euros (or 0.6% in total) on ‘Protection’ (environment and health science).

Local authorities are at the coal-face in dealing with health, the environment and well-being. Local Authorities not only act on their own, but are also enablers of action via collaboration, even if this also entails compromising. As the place where most of our citizens live, the quality of urban environments is critical to the well-being of our citizens. The role of nature in this environment, and citizens and authorities engaging and collaborating to enhance it, is at the core of my own research.


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