Nature on Prescription: Tackling Inequalities by Nurturing Through Nature

Louise Montgomery from Natural England explains how nature-based social prescribing can improve community wellbeing and the barriers to accessing nature in London.

The last eighteen months have cast a spotlight on the benefits of connecting with nature. This can help tackle mental health and wellbeing hurdles faced during the lockdowns. Local public green and blue spaces (such as parks, gardens, and rivers) have been more widely used.

Recent findings by Natural England found four in ten people were visiting local outdoor areas more than before the pandemic. The act of connecting with nature through activities such as gardening, forest bathing or river walks, is linked to better mental health by reducing stress, anxiety, depression and aiding attentional capacity. Lockdown has increased the feelings of isolation for so many of us. But it has also highlighted the inequality in accessing natural areas for certain groups, which will be explored further.

What is nature-based social prescribing?

Nature-based social prescribing is often referred to as a green or blue prescription. It is a form of community-based support by introducing engagement with the natural environment to improve people’s health and wellbeing. ‘Green prescriptions’ describe the social prescription activities of nature-based interventions on land, for example, gardening and walking groups. Whereas ‘blue prescriptions’ are activities around water bodies, such as fishing and canoeing.

London’s Green Spaces

Richmond Park is one of three National Nature Reserves located in London.

Greater London is one of the greenest cities in Europe, with 40% of the city having accessible green spaces, and is home to three National Nature Reserves: Richmond Park, Ruislip Woods and South London Downs. London also has the greatest concentration of city farms and community gardens compared to any other city in the UK and is home to over 150 Social Farms & Gardens.

We are also lucky to have London’s Blue Ribbon Network, the name given to London’s rivers, canals, docks, reservoirs and lakes, which can be found in every borough across London, providing opportunities to establish nature-based prescriptions across the entire city, if we wish!

Barriers to Nature-based Social Prescribing

Although nearly half of London’s area have open, public green space and waterways, many communities still face barriers to accessing nature. Despite having the right of access, people do not always feel they can visit urban green and blue spaces. Financial, structural, and psycho-social barriers, common in disadvantaged groups, can prevent access to these natural areas for social prescribing.

Sadly, those facing these barriers are often those who could receive the greatest health and wellbeing benefits. Physical barriers can include travel, such as a lack of transport, and available facilities (such as toilets and cafes). Additionally, physical access can be limited.

Individuals may not have suitable clothing, there may be no paths and difficult navigation for individuals with physical disabilities. People can face psychological and cultural barriers to accessing natural areas. This can include safety concerns, negative perceptions of the environment, and the under-representation of minority groups in greenspace use.

Activating Green & Blue Spaces

‘Activating’ natural spaces can help increase accessibility for social prescribing activities.

Although there can be barriers to accessing nature in urban environments, natural spaces can be ‘activated’ for social prescribing. This is by ensuring there is suitable infrastructure in place and representation of individuals from all backgrounds. Identifying good walking paths, transport links and infrastructure (e.g. cafes and toilets) in natural spaces can reduce barriers. Projects such as Greenspace Hack and the Ribble Rivers Trust have datasets and tools to support this. These help to accessible spaces and natural areas that could be ‘activated’ for the benefit of local people.

Ensuring that social prescribing initiatives have appropriate funding and ‘activating’ natural spaces for public use can help improve accessibility. Providing clothing, equipment and mapping suitable terrain for participants can help achieve this. Previous examples of activating a local blue space involved providing a range of Wellington boots for all sizes to be able to explore a local river and gain the benefits of connecting with nature.

Outdoor Community Engagement

The provision of guided outdoor activities can support those facing psychological and cultural barriers.

Finally, providing outdoor guided sessions with groups of participants from similar backgrounds, age groups and previous experiences can support those individuals that may face psychological and cultural barriers, such as Cycle Sisters.

It is important to consider not only the activities themselves, but the language around them, and who is delivering them. All cultures have different connections and experiences with nature and face different barriers.

Greater London has the advantage of having 3000 accessible parks across the city at our disposal. Encouraging engagement with nature in urban environments can help people who experience inequalities.

It can improve mood, wellbeing, resilience, and instil new passions for the great outdoors while fostering new connections. Often many people attend for the social prescription activity and stay for their newfound love of nature.

Greater London Survey

Natural England are working in partnership with the National Academy for Social Prescribing (NASP). This is to help identify and develop opportunities for people to utilise nature-based activities for social prescribing with Greater London.

If you offer nature-based activities or any other form of social prescribing activity within Greater London, to support the health and wellbeing of the community, we would be grateful if you could take the time to complete this survey (approx. 3-5 minutes completion time).

The results will help identify areas for future funding, and organisations that offer nature-based/ social prescribing activities. This informs on whether organisations can offer these activities in their local area in the future.

We’d like to hear from you!

The London Social Prescribing Network is looking for more blogs and case studies like these. If you’re involved in social prescribing activities, please contact us to get your voice heard by those with a key role in supporting the sustainability of social prescribing activities.

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