Our natural world hasn’t always been welcome in our urban landscapes, it has often been pushed back to make space for new housing and public services to satisfy a growing population in cities and towns. As a result, research has attempted to estimate nature’s value, so decision-makers can understand its worth when mapping out our future surroundings. Today, many of us are in quarantine to stop the spread of Covid-19, and we at Eunomia have noticed our appreciation of nature has increased.

The UK government aims to re-engage the population with nature as described in the 25 Year Environment Plan, but details of how they do it are still emerging. We asked two of our consultants with experience in this area why we are finding comfort in nature now more than ever and what evidence we need to understand its value.

A sense of perspective

Star Molteno, Consultant at Eunomia working from home in Frome, Somerset, evaluated initiatives using forests and woodlands as locations for health and wellbeing activities before joining Eunomia.  She also worked for the Forestry Commission exploring the evidence for the benefit of urban green spaces. She said: “Firstly, nature has the power to connect us to a much slower timescale – trees have been there for 50/100 years, landscape shaped over millennia. This gives us a long view of history that puts current concerns in perspective. Secondly, we live in a highly stimulating screen dominated society, even more so now many of us work on-screen, being in nature gives our brains a rest from this fast-paced environment and brings our attention to the present moment. Third, going out and gardening gives you a sense of control at a time when our sense of control is so lost, planting something and watching it grow is hugely rewarding.

Nature recovery plans

A study by The Wildlife Trusts shows that for every £1 invested in nature programmes, for people with average to high wellbeing, you get a return on investment of £8.50 in benefits. Local government need to create Nature Recovery Plans, and with the correct design, these can help tackle the mental health problems society currently faces. For evidence of the multi-faceted value of nature, councils will need to run projects for at least a year to detect real change, giving participants the chance to make life changes like coming off prescriptions or securing a new job.”

Quality not just quantity

Rebecca Mason, Trainee Consultant at Eunomia, has recently completed a literature review for a project we’re delivering for Natural England investigating the impact of nature on human health. She explained that “Many studies highlight the importance of ‘green space’, which is generally taken to mean an area of green land, although it is rarely defined, so the quality of the space isn’t considered. Walking through an empty playing field feels very different to walking through a forest buzzing with wildlife – yet research often doesn’t evaluate these differences. However, other research has shown that looking at individual plants or listening to natural noises can significantly relieve stress. Similarly, trees are well-known to improve air quality and mediate temperatures. Clearly ‘natural features’ are important. If we want to assess how nature can improve our health, then we need to define it better. This definition needs to recognise the quality of the natural environment and the presence of natural features within ‘green spaces’. We need to differentiate between the value of a drab field and a bluebell-filled woodland.”

We have carried out several reports that research placing a value on nature, in 2018 we developed the concept of a Natural Capital Trust, last year we carried out a study for the Environment Agency exploring the value of nature-based prescribing and we are currently working with Natural England to develop a dashboard councils can use to compare outcomes of various measures.