During the COVID-19 outbreak, our need for nature to support resilience has demonstrated that wildlife habitats, parks, green and blue spaces, are essential assets and not luxuries. It has also revealed that millions of us don't have easy access to green spaces within walking distance and that there are socio-economic and racial disparities in accessing nature's health benefits in cities.
Ethnic minorities died of COVID-19 at a greater rate. Evidence suggests that part of this is because the Covid-19 mortality rate was made worse by air pollution and ethnic minorities and people on lower incomes tend to live in areas with greater air pollution. Greenspace and trees counter air pollution, however, ethnic minorities and people on lower incomes tend to live in areas with fewer trees and less access to green space. In addition, it was harder for lower paid essential workers to avoid social contact than higher earning employees who could shelter at home. The pandemic also revealed that those with money and means could relocate to greener areas, whilst those without were trapped within the city's stressors. Making cities greener is a crucial public health response to an environment that doesn't currently meet our needs.
Urban areas are home to over 83% of the UK population. It's where we live, work and play, yet seemingly cities have been designed with an acceptance of environmental stressors which harm health – rather than designed to nurture and support health, qualities associated with nature, our natural habitat.
The city environment and its stressors (air pollution, noise, cityscape) have a detrimental effect on our cardiovascular system, neuropsychiatry, and gastrointestinal, reproductive, respiratory and immune systems. This leads to an increase in disorders such as male and female infertility, miscarriage, fetal development issues, low birth weight, Alzhemers, Parkinsons, high cholesterol and early death from asthma, lung disease, obesity, diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Loud noise, hectic movement of people, traffic and other competing visual stimuli of signs and lights take a toll on our autonomic nervous system and can be experienced as overload which our bodies perceive as a threat. This, in turn, triggers our fight, flight, freeze response, designed to protect us from danger. It is a survival instinct. When exposed to ongoing stressors that put us on alert for an extended period of time, we are likely to become irritable, angry, anxious or depressed and experience fatigue or burn out. Ongoing relentless stress from situations that leave us feeling overwhelmed and isolated can lead to emotional trauma.
Non-polluted natural environments, in contrast, can lower stress and heart rate, calm our nervous systems and support optimum health. Contact with nature can support us through hard times and help us to recover and repair from the inflammation of stress by inducing feelings of relaxation and connection.