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Connecting communities and improving health and wellbeing

REPORTS from the Department for Communities & Local Affairs, Mind, and Natural England.

Excerpts from Community Orchards Case Studies: Department for Communities and Local Government, August 2011

“The Government recognises the value for communities of green spaces – parks, orchards, allotments, gardens etc – and, as part of the localism and decentralisation agenda, has committed to measures that will enable individuals and communities to gain access to the land they need. Community orchards … are places for people to come together and use the open space as a focal point for community activities. They also promote the health benefits of fresh produce and outdoor exercise for people of all age groups.”

Here are some of the statements, taken verbatim from the impact assessments of 10 community orchards:

1. Prevention or alleviation of loneliness:

The orchard group frequently receives e-mails from people wanting to thank them for the difference the orchard has made to their lives.

… fostering neighbourly cooperation which will be enhanced through the exchange of horticultural tips and recipes, and the shared appreciation of the beauty of the fruit trees in a valued green space.

There has been an increase in the community working together since the orchard was created with local children showing an interest in where food comes from and older people getting out of their homes more and becoming less socially isolated.

A new community of people who contribute to the work in the orchard has developed. People work together and families with children attend events which are put on by the orchard group.

Enhanced community cohesion has been created by working in the orchard. New friendships have been formed and new skills developed.

2. Building Mental Resilience in Children:

The Forest Schools scheme [based at the orchard and run by trained leaders] aims to help people by allowing them to participate in engaging, motivating and achievable tasks and activities in a woodland environment each participant has an opportunity to develop intrinsic motivation, sound emotional and social skills. These skills can then be developed to allow individuals to reach their personal potential. Forest Schools has demonstrated success with children of all ages who visit the same local woodlands on a regular basis and through play, who have the opportunity to learn about the natural environment, how to handle risks and most importantly to use their own initiative to solve problems and co-operate with others. … Children use full sized tools, play, learn boundaries of behaviour; both physical and social, establish and grow in confidence, self-esteem and become self motivated.

Forest Schools develop: • self awareness• self regulation • intrinsic motivation • empathy • good social communication skills • independence • a positive mental attitude, self-esteem and confidence.


3. Support for vulnerable people:

The heritage orchard provides people with learning disabilities with stability and support so that each person has the opportunity to develop their skills and confidence, fulfil their potential and gain a sense of personal achievement.

4. Well-Being for the General Population

The orchard also helps raise people’s awareness and understanding of the contribution that physical activity and a good diet, using home grown organic produce, can make to everyone’s wellbeing and good health. The space creates respite away from the hustle of daily life. The public are welcome to walk around the orchard, bring their families, dogs and soak up the peace and quiet.

There is also a move away from prescription medicines to nature- based remedies. The charity Mind reports: “In the UK an estimated one in four people experience a ‘significant’ mental health problem in any one year. With the prescription of anti-depressants at record levels and a huge demand for Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and other psychological therapies, health and social care commissioners are examining and commissioning different options for cost effective services for mental health. At the same time there is increasing recognition of the importance of nature and place as a determinant of individuals’ mental health. Nature-based interventions are operating throughout the UK, working with a wide range of vulnerable groups helping to positively benefit health and wellbeing outcomes. Doctors are prescribing a range of green therapies and green care to their patients.”

Evaluations of schemes such as Green Gyms, a nation-wide scheme that has been operating through The Conservation Volunteers for 20 years, report these benefits:

  • significant increases in mental health state scores
    a reduction in depression

  • a trend towards weight loss

  • positive changes to lifestyle

Green Gyms also enhance mental wellbeing through increased contact with nature, the social benefits of group activity and helping people contribute something positive to their community. TCV work closely with partners, including mental health charity Mind, to continually innovate Green Gyms to ensure that they maximise the benefits for participants.

Natural England, the government’s advisor for the natural environment in England, state the varied benefits of nature to the general population. Note that 5 of these 9 points specifically refer to trees.

  1. Improving air quality - Trees, woodland and other green infrastructure improve air quality by intercepting harmful particulates, which are a contributing factor to respiratory conditions such as asthma. (1)

  2. Reducing stress – Urban residents suffering from stress experience less anxiety when they have a view of trees. Physical signs of stress such as muscle tension and pulse rate are also measurably reduced when moving into green surroundings (2)

  3. Aiding recovery – Hospital patients with a view of greenery have been shown to recover more rapidly, and require less pain killing medication than those who only have a view of buildings (3)

  4. Alleviating depression - Taking part in nature-based activities helps people who are suffering from mental ill-health and can contribute to a reduction in levels of anxiety and depression (4)

  5. Shading us from the sun – Thinning of the protective ozone layer coupled with more extreme weather patterns is being linked to the increase in skin melanomas, the most rapidly increasing form of cancer in the UK. Dappled shade of trees provides a useful barrier to harmful ultra-violet radiation (5)

  6. Encouraging physical activity- Green spaces provide space to exercise which improves memory and cognitive function. (6) People who use parks and other green spaces are three times more likely to reach the recommended level of physical activity than nonusers. (7)

  7. Saving lives - In the United States of America, trees help reduce or prevent more than 670 000 cases of severe respiratory diseases per year and thereby save more than 850 lives annually (8)

  8. Reduce obesity - Children living in areas with good access to green spaces have been shown to spend less time in front of television screens, computers and smart phones and to have 11-19 percent lower prevalence of obesity compared with children limited or no access to green spaces (9)

  9. Bringing people together – Trees and woods can help to bring people together and strengthen communities, reducing loneliness and isolation (10)”

In addition to these benefits to the general population, there is substantial and growing evidence of other health benefits to people living with various mental health issues.

The same Natural England report states: “as approximately two-thirds of people living with dementia currently live in their own homes and tend to be at the earlier stages of dementia, the interaction of this group with nature should be the focus of any future intervention.”

There have been initiatives to provide this contact with nature for those at the early stages of the disease, and it has been found to produce benefits including: 

  • improved emotional state:

  • reduced stress, agitation, anger, apathy and depression;

  • improved sleeping and eating patterns;

  • improved verbal expression, memory and attention;

  • improved awareness,

  • sense of well-being,

  • independence,

  • self-esteem and control; as well as

  • improved social interaction and a sense of belonging.


GreenGyms -

Natural England

Mental Health Charity and Organic Farm

Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England

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