Helping nature and people thrive in our cities

Aerial photo of trees in a parkland beside a river within a cityscape © Martyna Bober on Unsplash

Five projects are launched to study the connections between the quality of urban green spaces and our health and wellbeing.

The pandemic has thrown into sharp relief how important access to green spaces is for our mental and physical health. But what is less clear is how the quality of those environments affects the benefits we get from them, how the health of nature affects our own feelings of connection with nature, and our health. This is particularly true of the parks, canals, gardens, allotments and other open spaces in towns and cities, where most people live.

A new Lancaster University-led project, QUENCH, is bringing academics and practitioners together to find answers to these questions and to help create urban environments that are good for people and ecosystems. Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and in partnership with the University of Liverpool, the QUENCH team is building a network of environmental scientists, health researchers, psychologists and social scientists, along with practitioners from the public, private and third sectors.

“Involving people from outside of academia as an integral part of the network helps to make sure that the research is grounded in the real-life experience and needs of people working on managing, maintaining, regenerating and designing urban green spaces,” said Dr Andy Yuille, a QUENCH network associate.

A key part of building this network was a series of five workshops held in early 2022. These brought together experts from across disciplines and sectors to find new and exciting ways of collaborating to investigate this issue. The QUENCH network has now funded five proof of concept studies developed by workshop participants to test out these new ideas, which will run for six months.

Each of the studies tackles a different angle on understanding the links between the quality of our environments, our connection with nature and our health:

  • Making Space for Young People is looking at the physical and mental health effects on teenagers of doing different types of activities (conservation tasks, mindfulness exercises, and group discussion) in places with high or low biodiversity
  • EQUI-FOOD is examining how soil quality affects people’s sense of connection with nature in urban food growing projects at ground level and in rooftop gardens
  • Quality Inequalities is investigating how the ecological and sensory qualities of place influence inequalities in people’s experience of nature
  • Why do we dig gardens? is studying how ecosystem quality in nature-based activities can affect the management of and recovery from common mental health disorders?
  • Designed for Connection is looking into the effects of a new approach to citizen science, intended to foster connection with nature as well as monitor urban ecosystems, in areas of high and low ecological quality

“This work is crucial if we want to create healthier more sustainable places for people and nature to prosper. We’re excited to have brought together such a fantastic network of experts across sectors and to be able to launch these projects that will collaboratively start addressing this important question and informing how we design, manage and use urban green space,” said Professor Jess Davies, the QUENCH network lead and Director of the Centre for Global Eco-innovation at Lancaster University.

The non-academic project partners are excited about the potential for the network and the five studies to inform their work on the ground.

John Hutchinson from Groundwork said “The findings from this research will ensure that the views of young people, how they engage with, and how they value nature are more deeply understood. These views will guide long term nature improvements along the Sankey Valley corridor in St Helens.”

Louise Neilson from BIC Innovation said “A brilliant network event, that has provided the opportunity to build new relationships with numerous different individuals who have shared amazing insight and expertise. I'm looking forward to delivering our EQUI-Food project with the team, which will hopefully lead to some significant impactful projects in the near future.”

Emma Critchley from Eden Project North said: “This study and the opportunity to engage in this important research will hopefully bring a greater understanding of the community’s connection with nature and also help inform our work on developing Eden Project North.”

Mat Cottam from TCV said: “This interdisciplinary, cross-sectoral approach - bringing together academics, practitioners and business - presents a great opportunity to develop and test ways that connecting to nature can benefit health, testing them against real world opportunities and the barriers real people face.”

Workshop participants all made short videos describing the perspectives, needs, methods and resources that they bring to answering these questions. The videos are hosted on the QUENCH website and provide a long-term resource for other people who are interested in developing these ideas and collaborating on this challenge.

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