Thursday 26 April 2018

The benefits of a good environment for health and wellbeing

Better knowledge of the links between environmental quality and human health and wellbeing is now recognised as a key part to the development of good environmental and public health policy.

Environmental and health professionals need to work closely together to research these links and share knowledge. Over the past number of years the EPA and HSE have worked on bringing together environmental and healthcare professionals to foster collaboration to realise the benefits of a good environment for health and wellbeing.

The EPA and HSE now jointly host an annual Environment & Health Conference entitled Our Environment, Our Health, Our Wellbeing. The conference aims to promote a greater awareness of the impact of environmental quality on human health as well as awareness of the health benefits to be derived from interacting with nature. The most recent conference in November 2017 aimed to promote the sharing of practice and innovation in engaging citizens in environment, health and wellbeing programmes. The proceedings of the conference are made available through the EPA website. They provide a real insight into what’s happening in this area.

Research is under way to understand how engaging with communities helps us to understand how people in Ireland value and connect with nature for their health and wellbeing and to better understand the barriers and enablers to engaging with the outdoors. Dr. Easkey Britton, Marine Scientist and Social Activist, based in NUIG is currently working on a health project focused on nature-based solutions to health and wellbeing, funded by the EPA and HSE. The Nature and Environment to Attain and Restore (NEAR) Health Project researches how outdoor environments, blue and green space, and human health are linked and the restorative benefits of nature. It questions what blocks us as well as what motivates us to engage with nature. Findings so far highlight that we do value nature for our health and wellbeing and yet how we perceive, understand and value nature, health and wellbeing and the link between them, are very diverse. Our needs vary in terms of access and what we want to do outdoors. Preliminary findings from the evaluation of the wellbeing impacts of beach-cleans in Ireland suggest that the activity has an effect on perceived mood, for example decreased anxiety and disconnect, an increase in feeling refreshed and revitalised, and a sense of connectedness, especially social / community connection. These are some great reasons to get involved with your local beach clean group, or to start one in your locality.

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There is much we do not yet understand in this emerging field and people-environment interactions are incredibly complex. For example, is it the coastal environment or the activity that influences wellbeing? What is clear is that how we relate with each other and our environment matters to us all.

Connecting and involving local communities is a key part of the work carried out by The Wheel, the national association of charities, community and voluntary organisations in Ireland. Citing the outcome of an 18-month action-research study published in the Citizens Rising Report, Deirdre Garvey, CEO of The Wheel, outlined five “grand challenges” we face in Ireland if we are to maximise participation by people in democratic decision-making and in community life: increase participation in public decision-making; develop and nurture active citizenship; build trust and respect between institutions, statutory bodies and citizens; understand “citizenship” as being global; and resource and empower citizens to enable them to participate.

Technology will also have a key role to play in connecting communities with data that can better inform about local environmental quality. Smart Dublin, for example, is an initiative involving the four Dublin local authorities. According to Jamie Cudden, (Smart City Manager, Dublin City Council), its purpose is to engage with smart technology providers, researchers and citizens to solve city challenges and improve city region life. Many cities and governments around the world are aspiring to be ‘smart’. The aim of Smart Dublin is to position the city as a world leader in the development of new urban solutions, using open data, and the city as a test bed for innovation. As we move to a position where nearly 70% of the national population live in urban areas, the challenge of achieving sustainable living and working solutions becomes pressing.  

The key to the success of Smart Dublin will be the development of a collaborative framework to ensure that we can take advantage of some of the big tech trends that are transforming how we live and work. We can turn city challenges into opportunities for innovation and to call out for new ideas and solutions to improve mobility and transport management, the response to extreme weather and flooding events, energy efficiency and environment, citizen engagement and achieve a more efficient service delivery.

Over 400 smart bins (Big Belly compactors) were deployed across Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown resulting in a significant increase in efficiency. These bins not only collect and compact waste with real time monitoring but also measure environmental variables and passing pedestrian numbers. There are plans afoot to roll out up to 800 more of these bins across the city.

To respond more effectively to flooding there is now a network of sensors monitoring river levels, rainfall and local weather conditions in real time. The city is collaborating with Intel and the CONNECT research centre for future networks in TCD to deploy experimental low cost rainfall sensors.

Is Dublin noisy? A network of low cost and real time sound monitoring sensors developed by Dublin based Sonitus Systems lets people check the noise levels in their own neighbourhoods.

Projects such as these provide timely data on local issues that can help with tackling local environmental and health issues such as litter control, prevent homes being contaminated with flood water and highlight noise hotspots.  

Dublin is being primed as a test bed for smart city technology. Smart Dublin has relationships with high tech companies and can test the smart technology in the city and on the streets. There will be more changes in the next 10 years than in the last 50 years and if we can get it right, Dublin can lead the way as a global Smart City delivering real benefits for citizens. The benefits from an environmental and public health perspective from these types of technology innovations will be seen more and more into the future. 

Much of the current effort in the Environment & Health area is devoted to improving engagement. As Professor Micheal Depledge, a leading academic in this field based in the European Centre for Environmental and Human Health, University of Exeter Medical School, explained, providing future generations with an understanding of how the environment affects their health and wellbeing and how they themselves affect their environment is a critical challenge that must be met through education and engagement initiatives. We should not forget that the world is changing rapidly with new ways of living, new technological innovations and relentless demographic and environmental change. We need better methods for working together and sharing knowledge, predicting how current trends will play out in the future and what environment, health and wellbeing implications they will have. The new links between the EPA and the HSE will help meet these challenges.

More information can be found here.

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