Green spaces and healthy places: how 'green infrastructure' can benefit us all

Jolyon Chesworth, Head of Engagement, explains the health and wellbeing benefits of 'green infrastructure' and how it can make our urban environments healthier for everyone!

I’ve been working in Taunton for over six years now and the thing that strikes me as I continue to discover new corners of our county and Garden Town is just how green it is.

If you know where you are going you can walk or cycle from Silk Mills Park and Ride on one side of town to the M5 barrier on the other without hardly having to set foot on a road. The route takes you through Silk Mills Local Nature Reserve, Longrun Meadow and along the Tone corridor through Goodland Gardens and Children’s Wood Local Nature Reserve, ending up at Blackbrook Local Nature Reserve.

KIngfisher

Kingfisher - Jon Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photography

Elsewhere there are other green spaces, overlooked corners and corridors that provide welcome respite from concrete and the noise and pollution of idling traffic. On the way, if you look up from your feet or phone, you can see kingfishers, heron, egret, salmon, dragonflies, wildflowers, bees, butterflies and, if you are really lucky, water voles and otters.

This network of green spaces, footpaths, cycle ways and waterways are collectively known as ‘Green Infrastructure’, and it is incredibly important, both for wildlife and for people.

Over 50% of Somerset residents now live in urban areas and the figure is increasing. As a species, we humans evolved over millennia in a natural environment. If we condense human history from our hunter-gather ancestors into a 24-hour clock, the first cities were not built until 1 hour ago. The industrial revolution, which saw mass migration to urban areas, happened just 2.5 minutes ago.

Grey herons near woman in park

Grey heron pair in front of woman reading a book in urban park - Bertie Gregory

Whether we recognise it or not, nature and the outdoors is in our blood and you can’t undo thousands of years of evolution in just a couple of centuries without there being some consequences.

The newspapers are full of reports of our failing health, lack of exercise, increasing levels of obesity and instances of diabetes, and increases in reported poor mental health.

There is now clear evidence that a lack of connection to nature and the environment is both a contributing factor to these public health issues, but also part of the solution to turning things around, and nowhere is this more important than in our urban areas.

A recently published study examined 233 cities in Europe, including in the UK, and found that cities with high levels of natural space had lower death rates; other studies have shown that people who live within 300m of high-quality green space in urban areas had better health. Some studies, including in London, found that in areas with lots of street trees, fewer antidepressants were prescribed to residents.

Pair of people cycling

Pair of people cycling - Katrina Martin / 2020VISION

This ‘Green Infrastructure’ offers opportunities for exercise, recreation and sustainable travel; hedges and trees can filter harmful pollutants from the air; Green Infrastructure can soak up water and reduce flooding and it provides a free and safe space for families and communities to use and socialise – an important aspect of our wellbeing.

Fields in Trust recently estimated that the wellbeing value of green spaces is £34.2 billion per year and can save the NHS £111 million per year in reduced GP visits and prescriptions alone.

And what Green Infrastructure does for us, it also does for wildlife. At a time of ecological collapse, with significant numbers of mammals, insects and birds all in decline, urban areas can be havens for wildlife, and networks of green spaces and corridors can help them survive and thrive.

Taunton Garden Town is experiencing substantial urban development, with up to 13,000 new homes being built.

Gardening with wildlife, pond with house and garden behind

Gardening with wildlife, pond with house and garden behind - Tom Marshall

So what kind of developments are we going to get? Will they have high quality natural green spaces, as opposed to simply lots of mown grass? Will we have ponds, trees and hedges? Will these developments be linked by networks of footpaths and cycleways that allow people to move around and reduce car use?

If the answer is yes, then with this relatively minimal investment we can improve our wellbeing and communities, making Taunton a happier and healthier place to live. If the answer is no, then all we do is build in public health problems for decades to come and shift the financial burden for someone else to pay.