Why knowledge is power: nature-based solutions for multi-dimensional health

19 June 2020

A guest blog from Tadhg MacIntyre at the University of Limerick

The year 2020 has brought into focus the concept of wicked problems-seemingly intractable challenges that are both complex and interconnected with other problems. COVID-19 has demonstrated in dramatic terms how human health is interconnected to biodiversity and the natural world. Ironically the mitigating strategies of lockdown and physical distancing have brought to prominence why cities need greenspace more than ever. One solution to reduced transmission of the disease and the negative psychophysiological consequences of confinement is spending more time outdoors in greenspace. The OECD building back better approach requires environmentally destructive investment patterns and activities be avoided. A window into a potential carbon-neutral future has opened. Re-naturing cities is increasingly accepted as central to human and planetary health.

The European Commission were indeed prescient in calling for visionary and integrated solutions to improve health in cities (SC5-14-2019). Among the four successful projects was GOGREEN ROUTES which commences in September. The 10.48 M€ nature-based solutions (NBS) project coordinated at the University of Limerick in Ireland. The transdisciplinary consortium will pioneer a unique approach augmenting NBS, urban design with the goal of fostering a positive human-nature relationship, flourishing nature connectedness and promoting citizen engagement through digital, educational and behavioural innovation. GOGREEN ROUTES fosters mental health and well-being by optimising human nature interactions for all citizens. The thirty-nine partner team will cultivate NBS across six cities (Burgas, Bulgaria; Lahti, Finland; Limerick, Ireland; Umea, Sweden; and Versailles, France), seed a foundation for future NBS in Munich, Germany, Murcia region, Spain and Gzira in the Maltese conurbation and exchange knowledge with partners in China, Mexico and Georgia.

President of the UN Assembly, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, recently stated how “nature-based solutions have the capacity to protect, sustainably manage and restore both natural and modified ecosystems.” The EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 supports this nature first proposition. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, stated how making nature healthy again is key to our physical and mental wellbeing.” However, we need to optimise how nature is integrated into urban spaces and used and create a rapid means of knowledge creation and knowledge transfer to enable upscaling and future proliferation of NBS.

To this end, GOGREEN ROUTES will co-create a knowledge ecosystem with urban communities to raise awareness of risks (e.g. air pollution), benefits of sustainable physical activity (e.g. green exercise and active travel), and sustainable nutrition, all to empower decision-making at individual, community and city level. For example, GOGREEN ROUTES will develop online learning opportunities to cultivate citizen knowledge on (1) psychological resilience and the benefits of nature (2) enhancing nature connectedness (3) and engaged citizen science activities. At the University of Limerick, we are now inviting applicants for three funded doctoral studentships on sustainable physical activity, multi-dimensional health and sustainable nutrition and nature connectedness.

A unique aspect of GOGREEN ROUTES is the development and validation of a set of novel indicators of outdoor environmental quality led by Dr John Gallagher at Trinity College Dublin. These indicators will encompass both co-hazards of urban natural environments (e.g. noise and air pollution) and positive factors including the natural. A doctoral studentship at TU Dublin supervised by Dr Aoife Donnelly is also being offered which focuses upon person centred perception of the natural environment.

We envisage that the more than a dozen doctoral students across Europe within GOGREEN ROUTES will have the opportunity for internships with our cities, SME’s and other partners. The next generation of researchers within a dynamic knowledge ecosystem can transform into innovators, leaders and visionaries in NBS. Nature is our future.

Tadhg E. MacIntyre is a lecturer in psychology at the University of Limerick and coordinator of the GOGREEN ROUTES project, funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 framework programme under grant agreement no. 869764.