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Public health is a priority for our National Parks

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Family sat on hill at Ditchling Beacon overlooking the South Downs. Bicycles to the side of them.

Getting out and enjoying the great outdoors can do wonders for wellbeing – but it can also have an important impact on health.

Research shows that access to green space is associated with better health outcomes – for example people living in areas with large amounts of green space are three times as likely to be physically active than those living in areas where there is less open space.

We also know that not everyone has equal access to green space, with people in the most deprived communities ten times less likely to live in the greenest areas than those who are more affluent.

PHE and National Parks England have teamed up to work together to improve access to green spaces and secure better public health outcomes for more people.

From the Lake District to the New Forest, and from Exmoor to the Norfolk Broads, our ten National Parks cover 9.7% of England and represent some of our most beautiful and inspiring landscapes.

It surprises many to learn that half of the country’s population lives within an hour’s travel of a National Park.  They are generally free at point of access, and open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

They offer opportunities for accessible walking, cycling and other activities to residents and visitors, including those living in nearby cities and towns.  In fact, providing such opportunities is built into the statutory purposes of the National Parks and the ethos of the National Park Authorities.

At PHE, we recognise the important role that National Parks play as part of our wider environment to keep people healthy. As well as providing access to green spaces and beautiful countryside, our National Parks also promote sustainable development, in which the environment underpins thousands of successful businesses and a thriving rural economy.

Now we want to unlock and maximise this potential through supporting investment in National Parks and encouraging local partnerships between individual National Park Authorities and public health teams.

National Parks and public health

National Park Authorities help manage the parks and work with a wide range of people and organisations to help contribute to public health outcomes. Examples of this include:

  • supporting local Walking for Health initiatives that allow for gradual, achievable increases in levels of exertion and challenge
  • employing dedicated staff who work with GPs, Clinical Commissioning Groups and Health and Well Being Boards to run programmes that aim to reduce health inequalities in local populations
  • facilitating capital investment in infrastructure and ongoing management for walking and cycling routes, as well as other sporting activities
  • providing dedicated outreach programmes to support people with accessibility needs or other obstacles to accessing National Parks
  • supporting behavioural change through inviting people to try new physical activities on holiday, in a safe and supported setting
  • working with schools and other education providers to enable young people to benefit from a closer connection with nature and outdoor activities
  • encouraging and facilitating economic development that supports employment for people living in deep rural areas
  • providing opportunities for meaningful volunteering experiences, such as Community Champions, that encourage physical activity, social interaction, confidence and a sense of purpose

We've been privileged to see some of these examples first hand during a number of visits to National Parks across the country. We have seen programs that have been truly transformative for their participants.

Most recently we were in East Sussex, visiting Saddlescombe Farm in the South Downs National Park. It was great to see so many impressive initiatives to promote health and wellbeing, such as the Grow Project, which is designed to support people with experience of mental distress to enjoy the wellbeing benefits of connecting with nature in a safe and supportive group.

This work has been recognised recently in the Government’s Eight Point Plan for England’s National Parks.  The Plan aims to promote innovative schemes to support public health and realise the immense potential for outdoor recreation in National Parks - and public health professionals can help.

The evidence

Everything we do at PHE is based on the evidence, and this work is no different. There is a growing body of evidence to show that access to the natural environment can support positive health outcomes.

For example, Maas et al. (2009) found a relation between proximity to green space and morbidity, while Mitchell, Richard et al. (2008) found that populations exposed to the greenest environments also have lower levels of income-related health inequality.

Allen and Balfour (2014) have more recently demonstrated that overall better health is related to access to green space regardless of socio-economic status.  The evidence base is growing all the time and we must now focus on how to respond to these findings and address the barriers that might prevent more people from accessing green spaces, including National Parks.

We aim to support the further development of this evidence base by identifying suitable partnership opportunities with National Parks England through the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, and providing case studies and research findings to add to the evidence on the effectiveness of prescribed exercise and other ‘green prescription’ models.

Making the most of this opportunity

The potential our National Parks offer for improving physical and mental wellbeing is significant. As well as building the evidence, there are a number of areas that we want to focus on through this partnership, including policy development, investment, evaluation and communication.

Local public health teams will be great allies in this work, which requires the bringing together of partners across the political, environmental and business sectors, as well as physical and mental health services in primary, secondary and tertiary care.

We must also engage with local non-governmental and charitable organisations to improve access to National Parks, help tackle health inequalities and provide a more diverse offering of effective and innovative health promoting activities.

And importantly, we must rigorously evaluate and share health interventions being implemented in order to contribute to the growing body of literature on the impact of green spaces on health and wellbeing, working with local academic and public health colleagues.

We hope this partnership will act as a spur for wider collaboration amongst others too.

Image: National Parks England

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