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Green spaces: measuring their impact on health and wellbeing for citizens

Green infrastructure is vital for quality of life, health and wellbeing in urban areas, and many places are ready to implement green infrastructure strategies that promote densification while supporting mental and physical wellbeing. A new tool, using new data sources and technologies, can help to plan and cost green space plans, says Therese Karger-Lerchl, Vivid Economics

Therese Karger-Lerchl, Vivid Economics
17 September 2019
Across the UK, we are increasingly seeing a drive for urban intensification in our towns and cities as we seek to respond to the housing crisis. The important role green spaces play across our cities is widely recognised and many places are ready to implement comprehensive green infrastructure strategies
Across the UK, we are increasingly seeing a drive for urban intensification in our towns and cities as we seek to respond to the housing crisis. The important role green spaces play across our cities is widely recognised and many places are ready to implement comprehensive green infrastructure strategies
Using the valuation of physical health benefits of green space visits to assess interventions. Source: Vivid Economics
Using the valuation of physical health benefits of green space visits to assess interventions. Source: Vivid Economics

 

Cities are busy places and green spaces can provide a space of calm or a place to exercise, somewhere to meet friends or enjoy nature. Greenspaces also improve air quality and sequester carbon, making our lives better and healthier. 

At the same time, within the public sector, the squeezing of budgets has been much publicised in recent months. In tandem, across the UK, we are increasingly seeing a drive for urban intensification in our towns and cities as we seek to respond to the housing crisis. How can we respond to these pressures in a way which also considers the importance of place-making, modal shift, active transport, social inclusion and the broad health and wellbeing of all urban dwellers and daytime occupiers?

The important role green spaces play across our cities is widely recognised and many places are ready to implement comprehensive green infrastructure strategies that promote densification while supporting mental and physical wellbeing. But where to start, how much green space is needed and how should it be designed? These are difficult questions and answering them requires cross-sectoral expertise, reliable data and a lot of ambition. 

In early 2018, Vivid Economics, Barton Willmore and the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter secured grant funding from Innovate UK to use new data sources and technologies towards developing a tool that guides us through these pressing challenges. Since this point we have been collaboratively researching to develop an online tool called Greenkeeper, and are now on schedule to formally launch it to the GB market in January 2020. 

Maximizing the benefits of urban green infrastructure requires good information. Urban planners and designers, governing bodies and influencers alike want to understand what motivates the use of these spaces, how visitors interact with them and what aspects deliver the most value. 

If you regularly go on a run, cycle to work or play a game of football, chances are these activities improve your life expectancy and quality of life. In fact, the benefit is quantified at up to £2,100 a year...green spaces are vital for urban life but assessing how much to invest in them and how to target these investments can be difficult and expensive. Greenkeeper shows the value of our green spaces, how this value can be enhanced and how we can prioritise budgets to achieve the best outcom

Until now, this information has been difficult and expensive to collect. Location specific surveys provide a snapshot of information, but it is not easy to compare spaces or make a case for proposed investments. Using visit survey data from Natural England lets Greenkeeper estimate visits to individual green spaces, and layered with data on accessibility, green space features and individual characteristics, this places a value on the benefits delivered by your local park and how this contribution can be maximised.

Greenkeeper builds on Vivid Economics’s work on valuing the ecosystem services provided by London’s green spaces. 

Therese Karger-Lerchl, Vivid Economics, will be speaking at Smarter Tomorrow

The London Capital Accounts study found that for each £1 spent by local authorities and their partners on public green space, Londoners enjoy at least £27 in value. It advances the techniques and accessibility of the analysis and extends it nationwide, without any need for additional local data inputs or valuation expertise. Users simply select one or more greenspaces on a map, and Greenkeeper will report the values of benefits along with an intuitive guide on how to understand and use them, for example in developing a business case.

The most striking results arise from the value to physical health and mental wellbeing. Green spaces keep urban residents healthy and happy. But how healthy and happy? Health benefits depend on how active we are in green spaces. If you regularly go on a run, cycle to work or play a game of football, chances are these activities improve your life expectancy and quality of life. In fact, the benefit is quantified at up to £2,100 a year. 

People who are active but do not quite manage to get in 150 minutes a week still significantly benefit from exercise, their mortality risk reduction is valued at £520 per year. 

Understanding the health impacts and quantifying the value they have for individuals can help us to develop a business case for targeted interventions. The figure above shows an example for a park receiving 5,000 visitors a year. Across England, roughly 10% of visits are inactive, 60% of the active visits are made by people who go for the occasional run and 40% are made by people who regularly exercise. Already, the benefits provided to visitors add up to £4.8 million a year. 

It can be difficult to secure funding to improve green spaces without a strong business case, valuing the potential benefits allows a more comprehensive value-for-money assessment. For example, if we want to improve the benefits for currently non-active visitors, it can be useful to understand the value added if the intervention was successful. Motivating just 40% of the 500 non-active visitors to go on a brisk walk during their visit provides health benefits valued at £100,000 per year and any intervention costing less than this provides a net benefit. We can now compare it to other interventions that deliver £100,000 of health benefits and assess which makes more sense in the local context.

Green spaces are vital for urban life but assessing how much to invest in them and how to target these investments can be difficult and expensive. Greenkeeper shows the value of our green spaces, how this value can be enhanced and how we can prioritise budgets to achieve the best outcomes for urban residents and secure places for people to enjoy the outdoors for generations.

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