Making more use of Scotland’s outdoors as Our Natural Health Service is an initiative being led by SNH. Paul Barclay from The Conservation Volunteers (TCV), is part of the Cumbernauld Living Landscape team and delivers an innovative green health programme, which brilliantly illustrates how connecting to nature can help people whose health would benefit the most …
Emerging from a forest onto a pristine white sand beach and watching the sun set over the sea is not my usual Tuesday routine as part of the Wild Ways Well mental well-being project in Cumbernauld. On 24 September this year however, this natural outdoor space was exactly what I needed to recharge and de-stress having just presented at a workshop on green health and well-being, to the EUROPARC 2019 conference in Jurmala, Latvia.
The EUROPARC Federation is the representative body for Europe’s Protected Areas, bringing together culture, heritage and nature, and highlighting the importance of conservation and the environment to the fabric of society. Their conference this year was called ‘Nature on your Mind: understanding our values’ and included an inspiring keynote from UK-based Dr William Bird, who invented health walks and Green Gyms.
Jurmala lies about 30km west of the Latvian capital Riga and is a famous Baltic health resort, specialising in using nature as a therapy. It was once the secret getaway destination of Soviet leaders, who would come here to relax and attend to their well-being. We were lucky enough to visit a Sanitorium surrounded by dense woodland, which is still owned by Vladimir Putin and is where Russian citizens can be prescribed a therapeutic holiday among the trees. It is so dedicated to the woods that, despite being on the coast, it has no windows facing the sea!
It was obvious from my brief visit that the people of Latvia value nature and its health-giving effects in a very different way to ourselves in Scotland. Walking through the town it seems that trees have priority over buildings, with developers and owners having to work with, and live with, the mature trees on a site, rather than simply cutting them down. Travelling through the centre of this busy urban area I was amazed at one point to suddenly find myself in a mature woodland, full of well-maintained paths, a basketball court, cycle and hoverboard trails, leisure, retail and relaxation areas, all built in harmony with the woodland – imagine that in George Square!
I had a chance to get into real wild places too. I took my shoes off and walked a 2km long ‘barefoot’ trail designed to help you focus on your senses while walking over a variety of natural surfaces (including knee deep in a river!). I was fascinated to discover that parks across Latvia have a network of colour coded walking routes through them, designed so that doctors can prescribe standardised walks to their patients – a blue walk once per week for someone with a mild heart condition perhaps, or a yellow walk every day for someone recovering from illness.
It was wonderful to see so many people at the conference itself – and heartening that a good few were from the UK. Our hosts described us all collectively as the ‘green tribe’, working to put nature and conservation at the heart of European life and it did feel like a vast melting point of ideas and viewpoints. I was there to provide a case study as part of the ‘Nature on your doorstep’ workshop being run by Pete Rawcliffe from SNH, who also chairs the EUROPARC Commission on Health & Protected Areas. Our workshop had attendees from right across Europe, as well the United States and even Brazil, and my job was to show what we are doing in partnership with the Scottish Wildlife Trust in Cumbernauld. It was exciting also to realise that the work we are doing to re-connect folk facing poor mental health and social isolation with people, place and purpose using their local greenspaces, is right on the cutting edge of green health and that others are keen to learn from us.
The programme noted that my presentation would be made in English so my first job on standing was to tell everyone that it would actually be in Scottish – which is like English but much faster! I did my best to slow my speech down, so much so that I felt like I was moving in slow motion, so hopefully everyone got the gist of what I was saying. Most of the laughs were in the right places, so that was encouraging at least!
Following me was a case study from Finland about establishing National Urban Parks as a way to deliver a range of policy areas including biodiversity, cultural heritage and human health – providing places for physical activity, mental refreshment and social contact. Afterwards we workshopped some of the themes from the presentations to see how they could be made relevant to parks and green spaces everywhere. It was wonderful to see that the power of nature as a tool for healing and therapy is gaining so much attention and really moving to the forefront of environmental and health agendas.
The conference culminated in the presentation of the Jurmala Communiqué which announced the EUROPARC Federation’s plan to develop a ‘Healthy Parks Healthy People’ Europe programme. The HPHP approach began in Australia, promoted by Parks Victoria, and aims to influence policy, practice and partnerships to fully realise the potential of parks and protected areas to help deliver public health priorities.
It was a privilege to be invited to attend and speak and to present the work of TCV and Cumbernauld Living Landscape to such a wide audience. I arrived home at midnight on the Friday tired but re-energised – which was lucky as I spent that Saturday and Sunday attending events in Cumbernauld, delivering green health and not just talking about it!
Follow the links to find out more about Wild Ways Well; the 2019 EUROPARC conference (including the keynote Nature on Your Mind – in Health, the Jurmala Communiqué and access to all of the thematic workshop presentations including Paul’s case study); and TCV.