A trailblazing investment
A pioneering scheme of £4.27m launched Monday 5 October aimed at helping the mental wellbeing of communities hardest hit by coronavirus. But what does the new focus on green space mean for landscapers?
There’s a new awareness of the importance of green space, driven in part by growing alarm about habitat loss, the decline of many native species and climate change. But the human angle has been at least as compelling, and the unprecedented events of 2020 have highlighted this more than ever. From March onwards, people have found themselves in varying states of isolation. Some vulnerable groups – including those for whom new-build landscapers often service, such as the elderly – have been particularly hard hit.
It was July when George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, first announced this project, which will look at how best to scale up green social prescribing services. Since October it has been open to funding applications from potential delivery partners, who are welcome to submit expressions of interest to become a ‘test and learn’ site. Pilot schemes will run for two years in four locations with particular need and potential for impact. Local health, care and environment leads will work together to implement the services, which are also to be used to support Covid-19 recovery in hard-hit areas.
What are social prescribing and green prescribing?
We think of pharmacists giving out prescriptions to alleviate pain and treat symptoms of illness. The government’s green and social prescribing schemes are much the same, but on a community level, aimed at improving mental health, which has a huge effect in turn on general health and wellbeing.
Social prescribing includes any strategies used to connect people to community groups for practical and emotional support, while green prescribing focuses on ensuring people have access to outdoor green spaces.
In practical terms, the latter might include support for walking and cycling groups, green gyms, and practical habitat management conservation tasks such as tree planting. For more vulnerable groups, organised and assisted activities such as gardening and visits to local parks may be implemented to reduce loneliness and isolation.
Should landscapers plan outdoor spaces for yoga and other physical activities, to maintain health and wellbeing?
Why is the government acting now?
The NHS Long Term Plan sets out the government’s commitment to increase social prescribing as part of a drive to overhaul mental health services. The scheme also supports the 25-year environment plan, which aims to ensure that people of all backgrounds have the opportunity to spend quality time in, green and blue spaces in their everyday lives.
The new pilot schemes will support the government’s goals and existing social prescribing efforts, while producing functional data. It is hoped that concrete results will include improved mental health outcomes, reduced health inequalities and diminished demands on the health and social care system.
In a time of crisis, this is certainly a positive step, and while mental health services are struggling to meet demand, alternative approaches to improving wellbeing should be encouraged. But what can green social prescribing achieve?
What are the benefits of green social prescribing?
If everyone in England had equal access to good quality green space, Natural England estimates that the NHS could save more than £2 billion in treatment costs. This is a staggering amount of money and shows the importance of green spaces for all.
As Marian Spain, Chief Executive of Natural England, Marian Spain, says: ‘The evidence … shows beyond doubt that nature is good for our health. We have seen that demonstrated on a daily basis during the pandemic, with a resurgence in the use of urban parks, beaches and nature reserves and many people talking about the positive impact on their mental health and wellbeing. There is a compelling case, now more than ever, to provide more access to the outdoors for everybody as part of our health care system as the nation builds back greener from the pandemic.’
What opportunities are there for landscapers?
With the spectre of social distancing continuing for some time – and even future lockdowns – there is an increasing emphasis on the need for outdoor spaces where people can both socialise and exercise. In combination with climate change concerns, this means that soft landscapers have an opportunity to capitalise on green space as a selling point.
This is true for all new-build and commercial developments – but perhaps particularly for buildings intended for public health use, and residential properties designed for the elderly.
NHS England director of personalised care, James Sanderson, says: ‘We know how important it is to our mental health and wellbeing to get outside into parks, gardens and the countryside, and for patients we know that sometimes non-medical care can be effective and less disruptive.’
Landscapers need to begin thinking creatively about how to meet these needs in the context of their planning. For example, at the gated community Old School House, Chobham, Archway created several distinct areas in the communal open spaces, including using ornamental trees and hedging as ‘natural’ dividers – a means of using plants for both beauty and practical purposes. Elsewhere, tranquil spaces were created with pergolas or larger, mature trees and water features. Even in smaller areas, similar techniques could be employed to maximise the purposes to which green space can be put.
Instant hedging creates natural divides in green space at Old School House, Chobham
From including opportunities for exercise (such as planned walkways and open spaces for outdoor yoga, T’ai Chi or boot camps) to innovative ways to use plants in order to create socially distant spaces for relaxation and socialising, green social prescribing could present challenging and interesting opportunities.
In upcoming blogs we will explore some creative landscape solutions which combine pleasing aesthetics with the mental and physical health benefits that could be tomorrow’s key selling points in tenders for new projects. In the meantime, take a glimpse at just a selection of the varied landscapes Archway creates.