Directors Update – March 2022

March 17, 2022

Outdoor space, health and wellbeing

The link between people having access to outdoor spaces and good health is increasingly well documented. Yet the vast majority of the English countryside is out of bounds for most people, with 92% of the countryside and 96% of rivers being off limits to the public.

There is so much more open space in England, hidden behind stone walls of manorial estates or the barbed wire fences of private woodlands. We need the silence, solitude and open space of the landscape as much as we need its fresh air.

Our need to experience nature is not just about recreation, more than ever it is essential to our psychological wellbeing. With our sedentary and largely urbanised lifestyles, obesity and respiratory disorders are on the rise, and heart disease and back problems plague many. We have an urgent need for exercise and for the space to do it in.

Our mental health is in crisis, we are getting steadily more depressed, and ‘nature deficit disorder’ has been cited as the cause for many developmental issues in children, such as ADHD and eating disorders. Phytonicides released by trees in a forest can boost our immune systems and decrease the symptoms of stress.

Recent lockdowns have brought the issue of access to open space to the foreground of public consciousness. Those with gardens or access to green space were privileged over those without who were confined within the walls of their homes. Covid-19 has demonstrated that access to space is very visibly linked to social wellbeing.

Access to land is deeply biased against large sections of our society. As late as the 1930s, rambling and cycling were seen primarily as working-class hobbies, accompanied by a strong understanding that nature was needed as a salve to counteract the hard, cramped lifestyles of urban dwelling.

More recently, the countryside has become increasingly more the preserve of more affluent people. From National Trust membership to outdoor recreation shops, the leisure industry dominates our access to the countryside. The experience of nature is now something you purchase, a commodity if you can afford it.

For ethnically diverse communities, there are more barriers to nature than walls of private estates. The English landscape is filled with manorial estates built from the profits of enslaving and trading African people, of West Indian Sugar plantations and East Indian colonialism. These estates were built around common ground and blocked those who once had rights to this land from accessing nature. Many people from ethnically diverse communities feel unwelcome in the countryside.

At the end of the Second World War, the Attlee government looked into granting a full Right to Roam in England, similar to that of Scotland today. Alongside the welfare state, state pensions and the National Health Service, full access to the countryside was proposed as a corollary to the NHS, to offer a way to prevent illness before the need for cure. The Right to Roam was rejected by landowners in the House of Lords and replaced by the National Parks plan.

In today’s post-lockdown society, the vision of opening up more of the English countryside to the public has never seemed more relevant. We could alleviate pressure on the National Health Service by opening up the Natural Health Service, by giving people access to the natural healing properties of the countryside, the health benefits that come with the visceral experience of nature, with access to open space.

This article was adapted from The Right to Roam website:

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