A scientist’s opinion: Interview with Dr Mathew White about the role of aquatic environments on the health of urban populations

We speak with Mathew White, Environmental Psychologist at The European Centre for Environment & Human Health in the University of Exeter Medical School, about the links between ‘blue infrastructure’ and health and wellbeing.


What are your main research interests?

ESMH Scienctist Mathew WhiteI am a psychologist by training primarily interested in the effects of urban and natural environments on physical and mental health. In particular, we have been looking at the health-related impacts of climate change on urban populations. In the UK over 80% of people live in an urban environment, and they are affected by obvious environmental changes related to increases in temperature, as well as less obvious ones such as the greater proliferations of disease vectors, such as ticks, which thrive in warmer winters. As part of the H2020-funded BlueHealth project, we have been exploring the effects of exposure to urban blue environments (rivers, lakes, coastline) and human health and wellbeing.


Can you tell me a bit more about the BlueHealth project?

In the H2020 BlueHealth project we are exploring not just the risks but also the benefits of blue spaces such as fountains, rivers, canals and the coast. We consider three main mechanisms through which exposure to blue environments can be good or bad for your health: Mitigation, reducing the threat of certain negative exposures, such as urban heat island effects; restoration, restoring cognitive and emotional capacities by not placing the same demands on us as the built urban environment; and instoration, building certain capacities that are beneficial for health and well-being, encouraging physical activity and positive social interactions.


What have you found so far?

Broadly speaking, what we are finding is that it is the poorest communities that benefit the most from exposure to blue spaces near their homes. There are multiple reasons for this. In urban settings the access to, and quality of, green and blue spaces tend to be poorer in more economically deprived areas. So what you find is that if you improve the quality of these spaces in both rich areas (where people already have access to better quality spaces and better health) and in poor areas, it is in the less wealthy areas where the changes have a greater impact on health and wellbeing. In terms of equity, the qualities of the urban environment are most important for those that need it most. We would argue that investing in blue spaces can reduce health inequalities, while also potentially protecting fragile environments.


What will be your next steps?

We are currently completing the evaluations of four on-the-ground interventions, designed and built to improve access to blue spaces. Data gathered from one of these interventions, which involved building a small outdoor community theatre in a deprived area of Plymouth (UK), suggests it has been incredibly successful. We have recorded twice as many visits to the site and a diverse range of physical activities being undertaken, more social cohesion, as well as environmental improvements. These all have the potential to improve people’s mental health, and perceptions of the community and safety in the area.

Members of the team have also been exploring the effects of providing virtual reality aquatic experiences for people with reduced mobility or living in elderly care homes. Computer-generated virtual reality (CG-VR) has been linked to reducing stress, boredom and negative moods, while participatory indoor gardening and horticulture programmes have been effective for improving wellbeing and life satisfaction. We are also examining the effects of large infrastructure projects on health. For example, analysing data over several years on the amount of physical activity undertaken on a new pathway that improves access to an urban river in Spain.


What are the policy implications of your findings?

We have worked with local authorities and governments in different European countries to examine planning regulations, local perceptions and global trends that impact decision making, to try and make health and wellbeing a goal that is built-in to all urban infrastructure projects. We are also synthesising BlueHealth evidence, case studies and best practices into one BlueHealth pack to make recommendations for decision makers; this will be available online in May 2020.

Through another project: H2020 Seas, Oceans and Public Health in Europe (SOPHIE), we aim to deliver a clear, evidence-informed Oceans and Human Health Strategic Research Agenda (SRA) to EU policy makers. This project will identify aspects of the EU’s Blue growth strategy, which includes coastal tourism, mining the seabed, and encouraging aquaculture to drive economic growth, that will require further research due to their potential public health implications.

As part of the H2020 BlueHealth Project, we are running a very large experiment across 14 countries examining the behaviour of people when given information on the quality of the bathing water at their travel destination. We are able to put a cost estimate on improvements in bathing water quality by the number of people that say they would travel further to go to a cleaner beach.

By working with researchers developing strategies to mitigate the detrimental effects of increased workplace heat stress (HEATSHIELD), and promote healthier and more sustainable ways of moving and consuming (INHERIT), we are tackling urban health issues and health inequality from different angles.

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