Health, environment and the climate: the EU-funded BLUEHEALTH project is investigating links between these three distinct, yet related areas of research.
‘We’ve been investigating how people interact with Europe’s urban blue spaces – not just the coastline, but also rivers, canals and even fountains – to find out how they benefit health and well-being,’ says project coordinator Lora Fleming at the University of Exeter, United Kingdom.
BLUEHEALTH has conducted surveys, crunched numbers, built tools and examined scenarios to generate evidence of the benefits that natural and man-made environments with water can offer. In parallel, it carried out experimental interventions, such as a variety of small-scale projects referred to as ‘urban acupuncture’, which enabled the researchers to observe the impact of upgrades to blue spaces in practice. They also provided an opportunity to showcase the co-design process by developing spaces in collaboration with the communities they are intended to serve.
As of December 2019, six more months before the project ends, the work in BLUEHEALTH is now focused on sharing results and findings. The team is disseminating detailed advice on the design and long-term management of blue infrastructure to businesses, decision-makers and the general public.
A source of well-being
While some information on the health and well-being benefits of coastal areas was already documented when the project launched, research on proximity to other bodies of water had primarily focused just on the associated risks, Fleming notes. Evidence gathered in the project indicates that different types of blue space could provide a boost to health.
‘People exercise more in blue environments; they spend more time outside if they can; they report that they interact more positively with other people, including their families,’ Fleming explains. ‘They mention stress-busting effects, saying that they feel more relaxed.’
While these effects are particularly pronounced for coastal environments, previous research has found that blue spaces in general can outperform green or urban spaces in this respect, Fleming emphasises. However, individual sites may need a bit of attention – to unlock the full potential in terms of public health, environmental quality matters, and blue infrastructure, which must be suitably designed and maintained. Fleming points to the example of a disused inner-city beach that was reclaimed for and by the community, with support from BLUEHEALTH.
When new blue infrastructure is commissioned, for example to mitigate the effects of climate change, the boost to public health it could offer should also be factored in from the start. ‘I’m hoping that our research will lead stakeholders such as urban planners to look at their blue infrastructure spaces with the idea that designing and using them appropriately can unlock added value,’ Fleming says.
BLUEHEALTH has produced several tools to help foster this mindset. These notably include the decision support tool designed to help planners assess the prospective benefits and inherent risks of blue infrastructure construction or regeneration projects.
They also comprise analytical tools for individual sites: the BlueHealth Community Level Survey, which captures information on public health in the vicinity; the BlueHealth Environmental Assessment Tool, which helps planners to take stock of the site’s characteristics; and the BlueHealth Behavioural Assessment Tool, which helps planners to establish how it is used.
‘These novel tools are now being shared for use by experts in public health, landscape architecture and city planning,’ Fleming says. ‘Previously, people didn’t have anything like this for blue areas.’
In addition, BLUEHEALTH has generated a torrent of data, and with it a stream of research papers, resources and collaborations that will continue beyond the end of the project.
‘We have built a strong community of talented early-career researchers across the nine partnering institutions,’ Fleming notes. ‘They meet regularly and share information and contacts. We’re proud that the project has created an international cohort of interdisciplinary researchers who will continue to carry this research forward.’