By Sarah Bell, Cassandra Phoenix, Rebecca Lovell and Benedict Wheeler, University of Exeter Medical School
“I feed the pigeons, I sometimes feed the sparrows too. It gives me a sense of enormous wellbeing (parklife) and then I’m happy for the rest of the day, safe in the knowledge there will always be a bit of my heart devoted to it (parklife)”
Perhaps Damon Albarn was onto something when he wrote the lyrics to Blur’s infamous “Parklife” track. Interacting with pigeons, sparrows and other forms of biodiversity may well have implications for individual health. Research increasingly points to the potential health benefits of living beside the sea or in greener areas. For example, earlier this year, the BBC reported on a study identifying a sustained positive effect on wellbeing amongst individuals who had moved to greener living environments (focusing on those moving between different urban environments). This built on earlier research indicating that people living on the English coast are more likely to feel ‘fit’ and ‘well’ than those inland.
Whilst lower stress and enhanced opportunities to exercise were suggested as possible explanations for these trends, calls have been made for studies to explore how and why people routinely use their local green and blue spaces to promote their health and wellbeing. Our understanding of the links between such spaces and wellbeing could be improved by examining variations in perceived benefit within different types of green and blue environments, and the possible barriers that might prevent positive experiences in these spaces.
A paper recently published in Area presents a novel methodological approach for exploring these individual aspects of everyday green and blue space experience. Residents from two Cornish towns were initially asked to wear an accelerometer (a device that logs physical activity levels at regular intervals) and a GPS unit for seven consecutive days. The data from these two devices were used to create a set of personalised maps for each participant, showing where they went that week, how long they stayed in different places (green, blue and built) and how active they were.
These maps provided a useful visual tool to guide discussion in the second stage of the research, which involved an in-depth qualitative interview with each participant. During the interviews, participants talked through each of their maps, discussing any visits or activities that they felt were linked to their wellbeing in some way, as well as changes in their priorities and interactions with the spaces over time.
Finally, a series of ‘go-along’ interviews were conducted in places deemed important by participants, offering further insights into the experiences and relationships playing out in these places.
The results of the research are currently being finalised, but this paper highlights the potential to use this novel methodological approach to gain in-depth insights into how people use and experience their local spaces and places. It also helps to identify ‘subtle’ design opportunities that could enhance inclusivity, experiences and interactions between people and their local environments to promote wellbeing.
About the authors: Sarah Bell is a PhD candidate at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, University of Exeter Medical School. Cassandra Phoenix is a Senior Lecturer, Rebecca Lovell is a Research Fellow and Benedict Wheeler is a Senior Research Fellow at the same institution.
Bell, S. L., Phoenix, C., Lovell, R. and Wheeler, B. W. (2015), Using GPS and geo-narratives: a methodological approach for understanding and situating everyday green space encounters. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12152
Clark N and Lovell S 2014 Is conserving biodiversity the key to good mental health? The conversation.
Kinver M 2014 Green spaces have lasting positive effect on well-being BBC
Richardson L 2013 Greenwash: have the benefits of green space been exaggerated? Centre for Research on Environment, Society and Health (CRESH)
Wheeler B 2013 Beyond Greenspace – project summary