How nature shapes health around the world

Department of Conservation —  12/10/2018

Mental Health Awareness Week runs from 8-14 October. Healthy Nature Healthy People Co-ordinator Helen Gillespie spent time earlier this year discovering how countries around the world are enabling their people to let nature in. Helen was the recipient of the 2017 Stephen O’Dea award which provides professional development opportunities to staff in conservation management.

We adopted Healthy Nature Healthy People three years ago. Healthy Nature Healthy People aims to help people form connections with nature which will help them to maintain and improve their health and wellbeing. Our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the health of our environment. When we bring nature into our lives every day we all stand to benefit, including the environment.

I’m a ‘glass half full’ kind of person. When I won the Stephen O’Dea award in 2017 I had no problem rationalising travel to three continents and five countries in four weeks! The countries I would visit had all been involved in the healthy nature approach for a decade or more.This trip was a once in a lifetime opportunity to see what nature can contribute in a health setting and what health focuses there are in natural settings.


For some 10 years, Natural Heritage Scotland, Scottish Forestry Commission and the National Health Service have worked together to demonstrate the value of nature to health. The environmental agencies manage the landscapes in hospital campuses so that communities, hospital visitors and staff can make use of the green space. They restore and enhance the biodiversity and build recreation infrastructure. Schools use these areas for their outdoor classrooms, staff use the spaces for meetings and visitors are encouraged to engage their ‘green thumbs’ for the restoration of the area – weeding, propagating and planting.

It has taken some time, but clinical staff are now using these spaces for rehabilitation and therapy. Staff engage in lunch time initiatives for exercise or volunteering. Decisions made at Health Board tables are now being made with environmental agencies contributing as key members of governance and advocating for nature as a resource for health.

Edinburgh – Green is the new tartan! 📷: Helen Gillespie.

The Scottish Forestry Commission, Woods In and Around Towns (WIAT) Programme aims to actively manage urban woodlands, create new urban woodlands and empower communities to use them. It specifically focuses on areas of high deprivation. The goal is to have 2ha of woodlands within five mintues of where people live and 20ha within 5km of where people live. Recently they have increased tree planting targets to 15000 ha of new planting per annum, on previously unforested land. The programme is now aiming to have 25% woodland cover across Scotland.

Ninewells Hospital Garden has a retired clinician leading the outdoor initiative. 📷: Helen Gillespie.

This initiative will resonate with those people familiar with landscape restoration and the 1 Billion Trees project. At its core, Healthy Nature Healthy People, is about making the lives of more New Zealanders better, by connecting them with nature. For many New Zealanders, this will be ‘nearby nature’ close to where they live. More green space close to home is proven to increase physical activity and wellbeing, not to mention build connectivity of green space to broader environments.


While New Zealand is preparing for its first Wellbeing Budget, Wales is implementing the Future Generations Act (2015) which obliges 44 government agencies to contribute to each of seven wellbeing goals. Many private sector organisations in Wales are now working to these goals too, so the initial legislation will have much broader reach than was first intended.


Dubai’s landscape is about as different to New Zealand’s as you can get. The high-rise horizon only began in 1971 and this has brought with it extraordinary challenges. The highest peak in Dubai (the only hill as far as the eye can see), is the rubbish dump. It is highly visible from a main highway and trucks enter the site every few minutes 24/7, about 30 minutes from downtown Dubai. That said, the cityscape does seem clean and the water ways were notably free of rubbish and waste. All of Dubai’s water comes from de-salination of sea water so there is a very strong emphasis on grey-water use for irrigation.

Dubai’s mountain of rubbish is the highest point in the city. 📷: Helen Gillespie.

San Francisco

The Institute at the Golden Gate  is gathering and sharing best practice examples of community engagement and health/nature initiatives from around the US. Many of the initiatives have had a long evolution (up to ten years) but are now self-managing and expanding. Here, we work closely with the health sector – Healthy Families NZ (Ministry of Health) and the Mental Health Foundation – to shape Healthy Nature Healthy People. Similarly, the Institute partners with the San Francisco Department of Health.


I was eager to see whether national parks in other countries could wow me, like New Zealand’s landscapes do. I can still feel the sensation as my jaw dropped open when we arrived in Yosemite National Park! The sheer scale of the landscape is hard to take in.

Sadly, the fire season has been brutal on the biodiversity there and has had significant impacts on tourism and the locals who live near the parks. Locals are evacuated for days on end, multiple times a season and then suffer respiratory symptoms for months until the smoke and ash settle. Many are wondering how much worse the fire seasons will become with climate change.

Bush fires in Yosemite National Park in the United States. Nature can be brutal. 📷: Helen Gillespie.

Even at 3000 metres I came across cigarette butts and wondered how many of these ignite forest fires. In New Zealand 5% of rural fires are caused by discarded cigarettes. Parks New South Wales and Whistler Blackcomb Resort (Vancouver) have made public conservation land Smokefree to protect the environment and provide a healthy environment for visitors.

The potential for fire to ravage New Zealand’s precious environments is increasing with climate change too and we are looking at our approach to Smokefree public conservation land.

My travels have reinforced the amazing work that goes on in New Zealand. The commitment and passion of our staff to conservation is envied across the agencies I spent time with. Our Partnerships approach has created excitement within these countries and they are watching our progress. These agencies hold our organisation in high regard and look to us and New Zealand for best practice examples and innovation. We’re using number 8 wire all over again!

We are working closely with the Mental Health Foundation, Healthy Families NZ (Ministry of Health) and the Halberg Disability Sport Foundation. Our aim is to raise awareness of the wellbeing benefits from connecting with nature and to encourage more New Zealanders into outdoor settings, more often.

2 responses to How nature shapes health around the world


    Your images are just amazing. Let´s hope that people will change their minds and start caring about the nature. The best wish we all can have before entering 2019 is that the humanity starts protecting our Earth and its beautiful forests.


    These scenes are beautiful. Thanks for reminding the world how important nature is. We need to protect our our forests and all the natural resources in our environments.