Exploring the connections between nature and our health

More than one-third of Houston-area children are overweight or obese, a startling statistic that is common to many communities across the U.S. Moreover, more than three-quarters of our children are not getting the level of physical activity recommended to maintain a healthy weight. 

What does this have to do with land conservation? Believe it or not, evidence shows that the closer a child lives to a park or green space, the more likely he or she is to maintain a healthy weight.   

Intuitive? Yes. A driving force for conservation? Not yet.

In summer 2014, 30 leaders from health, academia and nature-focused nonprofits gathered at The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread in Racine, Wisconsin to explore the connections between health and nature.  Our group affirmed the positive health benefits from spending time in nature, and the imperative to use health as an important lens to guide conservation.  This affirmation formed the heart of the Wingspread Declaration on Health and Nature, released publicly in November at the World Parks Congress and the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting.

One of the declaration signatories, Howard Frumkin, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Washington said, “If nature contact were a medication, we would be prescribing it to everybody. It is safe, it is effective in preventing and treating a wide range of diseases and improving well-being, and, compared to many medications, it costs less, has fewer side effects and doesn’t need to be administered by a specialist. Investment in natural settings for healing, recreation and routine activities is investment in health—and it’s an investment that yields a very high return.”

The declaration is signed by representatives from America’s leading universities, foundations and health- and nature-focused nonprofits and calls for concerted action from health, environmental, academic, governmental and corporate actors to work together to reconnect people with nature and secure new commitments to protecting nature. There is an open invitation to everyone to join the call to action. 

With more than a decade working in the public health sector, and as a Houston Endowment program officer focused on the environment, I find strong logic in supporting the connection between the nature and health.  I signed the Wingspread Declaration on behalf of Houston Endowment, an organization founded by Jesse H. and Mary Gibbs Jones to improve life for the people of greater Houston. Through our grantmaking, we want to have a direct impact on people and encourage greater change, and are actively working to ensure that our environment and health portfolios are intertwined.  

For example, we have made a commitment to ensuring that Houstonians have access to parks and green space, emphasizing underserved, or “underparked,” areas, where levels of obesity are often higher.  To this end, we are supporting efforts to identify the places in the rapidly-urbanizing Houston area where green space is most needed and to find opportunities to acquire and enhance lands that best support recreation and connectivity.

The goals outlined in the Wingspread Declaration have substantial potential, and realizing them will require a fresh, multisectoral approach.  In this vein, it is our experience that crossover and collaboration can foster creative thinking with tremendous results. We encourage our partners in conservation to consider health professionals as allies, even as potential board members, and to value their unique perspectives and broad credibility.

Likewise, we encourage professionals in the health and medical community to consider their role in encouraging time in nature, and the valuable expertise they can bring as ambassadors to the conservation effort.  Funders, Houston Endowment included, can seek out opportunities to think across the silos of health and environment, and to consider how they might share the learnings of the Wingspread Declaration within their communities.

Whether a city park, community garden, tree-lined street or untamed wilderness, nature in people’s daily lives increases physical activity, reduces stress, renews the spirit and connects communities. This can and should be a rallying cry for protecting the places that, in turn, protect our health. 

 

Elizabeth G. Love is Program Officer, Environment for Houston Endowment overseeing grantmaking for the foundation’s environmental portfolio. Prior to joining the foundation, Elizabeth served as director of Harris County’s Public Health and Environmental Services Office of Policy and Planning. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Rice University and a master’s degree from the University of Texas School of Public Health.

 

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