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Theme 1: Places

Our topic is ‘connecting health, wellbeing and sustainability’ and in the first term of the academic year, we talked about places.

In October, we focused on internal environments and where we live and work. In November and December, we turned to green spaces and discussed how they can be designed to benefit people's health and the role that policy and communities could play in shaping them and surrounding cities in ways that benefit people and the environment.

As always, a panel of three expert witnesses from the worlds of policy, industry and academia joined us each month to provide their perspective on gaps and future research questions, followed by an open question and answer session. 

A bird's eye view of our meetings

Across all meetings, the benefits of green space for human wellbeing, happiness and sustainability were extolled, with evidence cited from fields such as neuroscience, epidemiology, economics, sociology and psychology to demonstrate the diverse impact green space has on our mental and physical health.

It was suggested that the benefits of green space on our happiness may not dampen over time, and Tom Armour, Global Landscape Architecture Leader at Arup, argued that the green environment is currently undervalued in urban design and should be an intrinsic part of our approach in order to build healthier cities. Similarly, Matthew Gandy, Professor of Cultural and Historical Geography in the Department of Geography, encouraged a greater appreciation of urban biodiversity and called for further research into how to incorporate the spontaneous dynamics of nature into urban planning.

The definition of terms, their usefulness and our understanding of them was a key point of discussion across all meetings. Catherine Ward Thompson, Professor of Landscape Architecture and Director of the OPENspace research centre at the University of Edinburgh, triggered discussion about what green space should look like: What unique benefits do green spaces provide and how 'green' do they need to be to bring those? What qualities should green space have to bring the most benefits to both people and the environment? How natural should those green spaces be and how important is biodiversity to the benefits they bring? Knowing the answers to such questions is vital so that we can preserve and replicate environments with the greatest positive influence on human wellbeing and happiness. The usefulness of wellbeing and happiness as metrics was also examined, with the latter considered a particularly subjective term that may detract attention from more complex issues.

However, the need for such metrics was also identified as a way of framing a business case to policymakers and decision makers, and this was a common concern across the meetings. Catalyzing change in policy is difficult even when the benefits of an approach are obvious.  However, there are opportunities for change given the public’s increasing awareness of terms such as wellbeing and sustainability and the current tumultuous political landscape. Dr Ellie Robinson, Assistant Director of External Affairs at the National Trust, described some of the work done in this area by her organisation, which uses natural capital accounting to demonstrate the value of green space. However, the dangers of monetising value as a result of the push to influence policy were acknowledged, as were the risk of ratings tools preventing a holistic approach to project design.

Two barriers were consistently identified with regards to policy change. The first was that the political and democratic system often precludes long-term planning and over short-term thinking, particularly with regards to major projects in the built environment. The other was the need to improve public engagement. This is particularly important when it comes to protecting invisible or unglamorous assets such as biodiversity or insect species. Craig Bennett, CEO of Friends of the Earth (England, Wales and Northern Ireland), advocated a greater democratisation of resources, improved public consultations and increased levels of education to help both reduce inequality and overcome incumbencies in the way we think.

Ron Bakker, Founding Partner of PLP Architects, described his work on The Edge, which is an example of a private investment that recognised a business model that valued sustainability, incorporated long-term thinking and engagement with the public. As a building, The Edge is sustainable and efficient in its use of space and is adaptable, creating opportunities for its users to interact with and alter the environment through daily communicative connections, and Ron advocated this design approach for cities. Nonetheless, Dr Peeter Pärt, Advisor in Environment and Human Health Interactions at the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, warned of the dangers of colliding policies and finding ways to combine sustainability and wellbeing needs more research.

As part of the pressing need to assess value, two speakers presented their innovative research into connecting happiness and wellbeing in relation to space. Dr Dimitris Ballas, a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Geography, explores the connection between wellbeing and social spaces by comparing objective measures with social survey data and then using multi-level modelling and simulations to create a contextual picture that can help inform social policy regarding incorporating wellbeing into urban planning. Dr Laurie Parma, a researcher based within the Policy Research Group at the Department of Psychology, examines the relationship between biodiversity and human wellbeing by gathering quantitative demographic and survey data through an app, Naturebuzz, and then mapping the results to help us understand whether some green spaces are more valuable than others.  

For more information about these meetings, please follow the links on the right or e-mail Dr Rosamunde Almond (r.almond@damtp.cam.ac.uk)

This report highlights the 'wicked problems' and key future research questions we generated during the three meetings on health, wellbeing and sustainability in the places where we live and work.

Download the report