A conservation activist who spent more than a decade fighting for improved recognition and investment in the Beddington Farmlands nature reserve has greeted a report from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust that “prescribes” nature for improved mental health as “a great initiative”.
The WWT says that creating wildlife-rich wetlands like ponds, streams, wetland parks and rain gardens in urban communities could help level up inequalities in wellbeing across the country.
According to the WWT report, people in the poorest urban and ethnic communities are twice as likely as those in more affluent groups to live in neighbourhoods without good-quality green or blue (that’s watery) spaces.
Research suggests this differing access to nature-rich areas could be associated with health inequalities.
The Wildfowl and Wetland Trust’s Creating Urban Wetlands for Wellbeing: A Route Map outlines how high-quality wetlands could help tackle these inequalities, often more effectively than other forms of nature.
The report highlights how wetlands can help low-income urban communities, which are frequently most at risk from the harmful impacts of poor mental health and the climate crisis, through relieving stress, cooling cities, reducing air and water pollution, alleviating flooding and boosting biodiversity.
And that feeling of calm which people commonly feel when alongside a babbling brook, listening to waves as they lap on a beach or while overlooking a still lake really is a tool for better mental well-being. A study of 16,000 people across 18 countries found that frequently visiting “watery” nature decreased mental distress. Just 10 minutes spent in urban wetlands can be enough to improve a person’s mood.
Now, WWT is working with the Mental Health Foundation and the NHS, prescribing wetlands in London for people experiencing poor mental health with limited resources.
Dr Ben Plimpton, MHF’s project manager, said, “Initiatives such as WWT and MHF’s Blue Prescribing at London Wetland Centre can be particularly effective at improving people’s mental health – and may sometimes prevent the need for crisis support.
“Initial assessment of social prescribing has shown that the average wellbeing value of wetland social prescribing was £4,848 per person, compared to £1,084 and £1,127 per person for arts engagement and sports participation. Increasing structured access to city wetlands for those with limited resources, as our scheme does, could be one of the simplest ways to lift people’s wellbeing in urban areas.”
The WWF route map details how nature-rich wetlands can be created in a range of urban settings, allowing them to fit in any urban space, even in people’s back gardens or yards, including:
- installing simple drainpipe wetlands in backyards and gardens
- building new rain gardens during street repair work and neighbourhood improvements
- restoring streams and rivers flowing through neighbourhoods
- creating parks centred on wetlands that provide a wellbeing resource for whole communities
It recommends creating and restoring wetlands where they can best reduce health inequalities, such as in areas without access to nature, where deprived communities and neighbourhoods are at risk of flooding and overheating as the climate crisis escalates.
The report urges governments, businesses and civil society to play their part in creating and restoring urban wetlands that can help to level up wellbeing. In particular, restoring wetland nature to urban areas should be a major part of the Government’s plans to level up opportunity across the country, with a new legal duty on councils and developers to provide access to nature.
“Most human settlements grew around a water source and wetlands long used to be an integral part of our great towns and cities,” said Dr James Robinson, director of conservation at WWT.
“However, increasingly new developments have swallowed many of them up. Worryingly, there are no UK-wide plans to increase the amount of blue or green nature in urban areas, despite the huge value they provide. London’s natural spaces alone save the NHS £950million annually.
“WWT are experts at protecting, restoring and building new wetlands but to do this at scale, including in urban areas, more support and funding from the public and private sectors is needed. The opportunities that wetlands offer to enhance and extend our lives are established – but they are not being grasped.
“WWT’s route map provides a clear plan of how this can be achieved.”
WWT’s call for more urban wetlands is part of their wider Wetlands Can! Campaign, which is urging the public to pledge their support for a “blue recovery” by creating and restoring 100,000 hectares of wetlands throughout the country to help combat the climate, nature and wellbeing crises.
One area which, despite promises from City Hall, local councils and businesses, offers exactly the kind of blue space opportunity that the WWT is calling for, but which has struggled to fill its potential is the Beddington Farmlands in Sutton, 400 acres of wild habitat and wetlands which has too often been sadly neglected while multi-national Viridor develop their incinerator business and Sutton Council looks the other way.
Peter Alfrey spent many years monitoring the wildlife numbers and trying to hold the council and Viridor to account over their various promises to enhance and improve the wetlands.
He sees the WWT report as an important document for the future of Beddington Farmlands.
“This is a great initiative and hopefully Sutton Council and Viridor are inspired to work with the NHS and mental health organisations in the borough in ‘prescribing’ nature-based therapy at Beddington Farmlands for Sutton citizens,” Alfrey told Inside Croydon.
“There are numerous studies that prove the link between nature and wellbeing and particularly how wetland and water habitats are some of the most important habitats in providing powerful calming effects to alleviate stress.
“There are more than 400 acres of wetland and natural habitats at Beddington Farmlands – four times the size of the WWT’s London Wetland Centre at Barnes – so the ‘social capital’ of the Farmlands is basically a gold mine in terms of wellbeing wealth.
“The legal deadline for the completion of the Farmlands’ habitats is at the end of 2023 and good progress is being made but as the WWT report shows, the mental wellbeing of the citizens (and of course a great deal of the wildlife) of south London depends on this area.
“With current heavily restricted access to the Farmlands and a history of delays, local people and the wildlife are literally suffering while we wait for the reserve completion and full opening to the public. Indeed we need levelling up in inequalities in Sutton, and Beddington Farmlands provides one of the most important objectives in achieving that.”
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