This short case study is intended to start a conversation for and with organisations working in green space to think about how their work can impact on wellbeing inequalities. How do their activities consider the barriers to people engaging with activities in green space? How can different groups’ skills and knowledge be used to better inform activities within green space that can reduce wellbeing inequalities? How can such activities form part of a broader set of practices that can reduce wellbeing inequalities?
There is increasing amounts of evidence of the health and wellbeing benefits of spending time in natural environments. Good access to green or recreational areas has been found to improve social contact and community cohesion and to narrow inequality in mental wellbeing across different socioeconomic groups by 40% . However, despite having disproportional benefits from accessing green space, those in lower socioeconomic groups can face the greatest barriers. In addition to socioeconomic status, ethnicity is also a predictor of low levels of use: whilst 10% of the UK population come from an ethnic minority, they represent only 1% of visits to National Parks .
This illustration study will explore wellbeing inequalities in relation to green space, using one organisation: Sheffield Environmental Movement (SEM) an environmental charity. SEM seek to break down barriers to accessing- and enjoying- the natural environment. In discussing their work, this study will reflect on some of the opportunities and challenges SEM have found in their work for broadening access to green space, and therefore contributing to reducing inequalities in wellbeing.
Inequalities in wellbeing: link to green space
Wellbeing inequality can be understood as the extent to which peoples’ experiences of life vary within a population, or between different groups (from the Centre’s 2017 Measuring Wellbeing Inequality in Britain report).
Thinking about inequalities in wellbeing can add to our understanding of other inequalities, such as health and income, to help give us insight into differences within and between our communities. By understanding these differences, and the conditions that contribute to reduced inequalities, we can use such insight to inform local policies and projects that contribute to increasing the wellbeing of those with the lowest levels.
A report published by the Centre in 2017 looked at the drivers of wellbeing inequality. Using data gathered at the local authority level, the research found that, amongst other things:
Higher levels of engagement in heritage activities and the use of green space for health or exercise is associated with lower wellbeing inequality in local authorities, even though increased engagement in these activities is not associated with improved average wellbeing.
The report acknowledges that there is evidence of inequalities in accessing green space, however the findings point to a potential greater benefit for those with lower life satisfaction to increase their wellbeing by accessing green space activities.
But what are the benefits of the activities within the green space: this is more than merely being able to access green space, it’s also about what people do within the space. Are all people able to get the best out of their time in nature?
Sheffield Environmental Movement
Sheffield Environmental Movement (SEM) works with people from Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic & Refugee (BAMER) communities in Sheffield to help them access the natural environment to promote their health and wellbeing. Set in the “greenest city in Europe”, Sheffield is home to over 250 parks and one third of the city is within the Peak District National Park . However, for the groups they work with, there is not equality in accessing and making the best of these local assets.
Lack of black role models in environmental sector
The Chair of the Board of SEM – Joseph Saverimoutou- and Projects Manager – Maxwell A. Ayamba explained their perceptions of the barriers to people accessing local green space activities. Firstly and foremost, there is a lack of role models working and volunteering within the environmental sector. For example, on nature programmes there are few of black faces: they could name a small number, including Liz Bonin. At a national level and in particular in large environmental organisations, there is a commitment to diversity and inclusion, but SEM found that those working locally do not translate this into action on the ground. In particular, those leading local work see groups that are different to them as tourists within green space, not potential participants in their use, development and management. There is a perception that migrant skills are not valued.
“[I] took the 218 bus this morning that goes to Glossop. Lots of people were going for a walk in the country- you could tell by their dress- but there were no black people.” [SEM representative]
‘Gateways’ into nature
Secondly, access to nature and green space is often about a gentle introduction. For those moving into Sheffield communities, if they haven’t grown up with such landscapes or been told what is out there, many of those using SEM report that they don’t know what exists. For those growing up, and making use of, green spaces, introductions to the opportunities and the fun of using those spaces may have come in childhood, with their family or through school. These early experiences can form the gateway to future engagement and enjoyment of green space, and the associated benefits.
“[This] group has been going since ‘83 but only in the last few years we’ve been going walking. Before I did not have time- on my day off I didn’t want to go walking. Also, we didn’t know these places existed. Never really thought about it.” [Interviewee, SADACCA]
Finally, some of SEM’s activities are based on the idea of ‘cultural severance’. That is, when someone moves from one environment to another, they lose their knowledge of the landscape, biodiversity and activities. They may need activities to help them link their knowledge of nature from “back home” to the species within Yorkshire and the surrounding areas. Joe and Maxwell described how there are cultural issues about outdoor activities, for example walking: people can see it as a chore, despite coming from places where they would walk everywhere, so the culture of walking can be conceptualised from different cultural perspectives.
In order to overcome some of these challenges, SEM offer a number of activities to people in local communities by providing them with information and support to know where they are going; how to get there; what to see; what to do.
- Their original flagship project, 100 Black Men Walk for Health, was modelled around the Million Man March, a Civil Rights Movement: using walking as an exploration of the outdoors to give space for middle aged black men to come together, to engage with each other, to feel a sense of connection and ownership of place, and to improve their health and well-being. The group which has now evolved to include both women and young people was originally aimed at African and African Caribbean middle aged men who are more likely to suffer from poor mental health, hypertension, stroke, diabetes and prostate cancer due to leading sedentary lifestyles. They offer guided health walks in local areas of interest to groups. These walks are intended to benefit physical health by offering structured and enjoyable exercises, but also to increase engagement with the local environment by offering insight into local species of flora and fauna that participants can use to reflect on their existing knowledge, and share with other members of their community.
- Guided activities such as horse riding and coarse fishing: these are intended to give groups a taster into activities that they wouldn’t have sought out independently.
- They are also delivering work to schools, colleges and youth centres through the Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) Explore Nature programme a UK-wide environmental citizenship science initiative. In these sessions, they teach participants to observe changes to the environment, such as the growth of lichen as an indicator of pollution.
Understanding and measuring the value of the work
For their 2016-20 business case, SEM undertook baseline surveys with BAMER communities and groups as part of an action research project. They found that 99% of those surveyed, had never been to the wider countryside or the Peak District National Park; 88% did not know how to get to these spaces; and 90% of those in older age groups were fearful of venturing to unknown places[vi]. This data was used, along with feedback from community organisations about aspirational outcomes to influence the work.
“Our members are interested in environmental issues of all kinds…activities will help our women to [not be in] distress when they go outdoors as many of them are carers and some too have language barriers.” [ROSHNI – Asian Women’s Resource Centre]
SEM uses a mixture of quantitative and qualitative methods to gather data about the impact of their work. They gather baseline data on all beneficiaries, including demographic information (ethnicity, gender, whether they have a disability and age) current levels of knowledge and skills in a particular activity. Following each session, participants provide a subjective assessment of their knowledge and skills development, as well as any changes in their stress levels. This is often recorded in videos or short photo focused blogs that are then posted to the group website, giving an “in the moment” snapshot of their experience, what they enjoyed about the trip or activity and the impact on their lives. This is followed by a review of their participation in activities of the physical and emotional wellbeing six months after they have participated in the activity (where possible and relevant).
What’s working, and what could be improved?
The work has been well received by community groups, with some participants engaging in regular activities. Joe and Maxwell described the countryside as a place where people bond with each other and where they are at one with nature. They see it as a place where people appear to be friendlier and more equal. Through their work with local groups, they are expanding the reach to those that are unable to access and enjoy nature. The initial group, 100 Black Men Walking, has proved to be a successful social activity for those men taking part, as illustrated in this film with Griff Rhys Jones, as well as an inspiration for a wider study. The Black Men Walking Group inspired the production of a play by rapper and theatre maker Testament, titled “Black Men Walking” an Eclipse Theatre Company and Royal Exchange Theatre Co-production which has become a popular hit nation-wide.
For those attending activities such as horse riding or coarse fishing taster sessions, SEM’s work is providing them with the experiences that they have never had. This gives them a sense of achievement – competence and helping with improvement in their wellbeing. One women’s group called the Sheffield and District African Caribbean Community Association (SADACCA) enjoyed experiencing horse riding so much that, they are actively trying to book more new opportunities.
“There are places in the city: Peace Gardens, parks, library that are peaceful. But we do other things on trips- pottery, horse riding.” [Interviewee, SADACCA]
Looking beyond ‘BAMER’ as a monolithic group
From SEM’s experience of working with diverse ethnic groups, they have identified the different needs; therefore environmental organisations cannot and should not treat Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic and Refugees (BAMER) as a homogenous group. For example, within the communities that SEM works with, they engage with first generation migrants very well as many of them grew up in the outdoors close to nature in their respective home countries of birth, before relocating to England settling in poor urban areas. However, there are others too who view rural life as being backwards and thus are not interested to reconnect or access nature, so to such groups the countryside becomes a lost memory.
When taking those that have memories of the rural countryside back home for walks, the experience makes them nostalgic about their childhood and they talk about similarities and differences in the plants and animals. They have recently undertaken work with young Slovak ESOL students from Fir Vale College part of Hillsborough College who are regarded as “having a reputation not wanting to integrate”. However, when they took them out to the countryside, they recognised plants and species that exist in their homeland and they can reconnect these to folk stories back home. They feel like they have something to give.
“[It’s got me] thinking about roots- people live longer and healthier back home.” [Interviewee, SADACCA]
However, they have found this is not the case with all the subsequent generations of ethnic minorities, who are more disconnected: although they might have had some experience of the natural environment during visits to their parent’s respective home countries, and can also relate to their parents stories, they find it harder to translate that knowledge to the ecological history in the UK. That is enhanced for those who have not experienced much green space in the UK, as their parents did before immigrating. However, despite these challenges, SEM have found they are interested in and able to engage to the local environment and can relate to things that are new and interesting. SEM stated that third generation ethnic minorities specifically who are much younger are much harder to engage they sometimes feel like a “lost generation”: they have neither the knowledge nor the stories of their grandparents or UK environment.
Funding for smaller local organisations
Finally, staff at SEM also felt that whilst there may be lots of funding around at the moment for research to explore the links between green space and wellbeing, outside of the larger organisations, there is less available for smaller organisations such as themselves to actually deliver work on the ground with and for underrepresented communities that could feed insight back into the wider research agenda.
SEM’s work is built upon a good history of working in Sheffield and the surrounding areas, with other local partners and in a changing context. However, the experiences of those working with the organisation are likely to be felt by other groups who do not have access to green space.
The questions identified at the outset of this piece are addressed by the work that SEM delivers. In seeking to break down barriers, they have found ways of effectively and proudly accessing space that is available to all citizens, taking inspiration from mass protests and putting the idea of wellbeing and social justice at the heart of what they do. They work closely with community specific organisations to understand the different needs of particular groups, as well as using open discussion with participants about what they enjoy and want to participate in. In turn, they use this insight, from meaningful engagement, to design and deliver their work.
Furthermore, SEM’s participation in citizen science projects, such as OPAL, as well as the ongoing partnership with community organisations such as SADACCA builds on the knowledge, skills and interest that different communities bring to environmental projects. SEM promotes cross cultural learning and exploration: the similarities and differences in outdoor environments, and how that can help us learn about ourselves and the place we live. At its heart, this is about something broader than access to green space, it’s about how to bring people together to share experiences and to enjoy places, experiences and time together. The work delivered by SEM uses existing infrastructure, such as public transport and national parks, suggesting that the work could be scalable to other groups across different areas, providing that exists. However, much of this work is built on the trust, time, energy and good networks that SEM have built over time and does need investment both in terms of the time of a coordinator, as well as resources and equipment to help those on low incomes to be able to access the outdoors safely (“It’s so cold!” [Participant, SADACCA]).
For others working in this space, there will surely be similarities in their work. As part of the What Works for Wellbeing process of learning, we would be interested in hearing about your work, and any evidence of how activities that use green space as a means of engagement can promote individual and community wellbeing.
If you are interested in exploring more about the impact your organisation has on wellbeing and inequalities in wellbeing, the following resources might be of use:
 Data from National Park annual visitor surveys, 2005-2007, The Mosaic Model: Engaging BME communities in National Parks (No date), Natural England and the Big Lottery Fund.
 Sheffield Environmental Movement (SEM) Business Plan 2016-2020.