Nature can provide key to tackling European urban health problems

Written by Patrick Ten Brink on 4 June 2015 in Opinion

Nature is a powerful tool for improving people's mental and physical wellbeing, and deserves further EU investment, writes Patrick Ten Brink.

Health concerns are multiplying in our increasingly urban Europe. Ambient air pollution causes respiratory diseases and early death: 90 per cent of urban populations are exposed to air pollution that exceeds world health organisation standards, leading to around half a million cases of early mortality annually in Europe. 

Traffic noise creates stress, can impair hearing and leads to cognitive difficulties in children. Risks of heat stress in urban areas are also rising in densely-populated cities that are facing the effects of climate change.

These health and social problems add to the strains on our already overstretched and underfunded public health systems, and they call for lateral thinking. The solutions will be multiple; there is no single magic bullet.


However, nature-based solutions offer one promising approach that deserves particular attention. Over the last decade, there has been a revolution in scientific research on the variety of benefits of nature for humans.

Urban, peri-urban and rural parks, green living and working environments, tree-lined streets, green roofs and ecological sound barriers each offer nature-based solutions to health challenges, often addressing several health concerns simultaneously.

For example, research shows that a 10 per cent increase in urban green cover can mitigate four degrees centigrade of temperature rise, while at the same time offering many other health and social benefits.

Science has shown that children's learning and development benefits from engagement with nature and early exposure reduces risks of allergies later in life. Increased outdoor exercise helps with obesity. 

Improving access to and use of green spaces can support the recovery and rehabilitation both of hospital patients and those being cared for at home. There are proven benefits for dealing with depression, burn-out and dementia.

Practice has also demonstrated that working with nature can support self-esteem, learning, sense of identity and self-worth. It can help the reintegration of struggling children and the unemployed into society.

There is now an opportunity to integrate this new understanding into policy, focusing on nature-based solutions that offer the greatest benefits. 

Engagement with such solutions must come from policymakers dealing not only with environmental policies, but also with health, education, employment, social inclusion and culture. 

This requires understanding of the multiple benefits of nature at the highest levels, and cooperation in decision-making at all levels, from the European to the local.

It needs prioritisation in the European research agenda. Furthermore, better use of EU funding is certainly a priority.

For example, more should be made of funding under the European structural and investment funds for nature-based solutions - this will set an example for the member states, and perhaps also globally.

In addition, we need investment and support for a well-managed Natura 2000 network of protected areas. Advancing the EU green infrastructure strategy will help drive forward health benefits, especially in cities. 

Environmental policies can be partnered with other policies, for example in the health, regional and urban planning fields. Parliament and council's support in this regard will be crucial, as will national to local implementation.

In effect, the loss of nature is decreasing our natural insurance - our social security. We need to invest in our natural capital to ensure that we have healthy and resilient cities, and more sustainable societies. 

This will have the added benefit of reducing the burden on public funds from dealing with the growing health challenge.

Addressing these multiple challenges will hardly be a walk in the park, but I find it encouraging that some doctors are beginning to prescribe just that - as an effective means of improving both physical and mental health.


About the author

Patrick Ten Brink is head of the Brussels office and environmental economics programme at the institute of European environmental policy

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