Improving access to nature for all is vital for our post COVID-19 collective health and wellbeing

This month Ecosia launched its first tree-planting campaign in the UK in partnership with NHS Forest and Trees for Cities. Over the course of three Thursdays in May, searches made by Ecosia’s users in the UK and donations to the project were able to fund 2020 trees for over ten UK NHS hospital and local council sites. The purpose of #GrowYourLove was threefold: to give Ecosia’s UK users an opportunity to show their appreciation to frontline healthcare workers; to support NHS key workers’ long term mental and physical wellbeing by contributing to a healthier working environment; and to improve access to nature by working with local organizations to plant thousands of trees on and around hospital grounds across the country.

The past few months have been challenging and many of us may have experienced feelings of anxiety, stress or a sense of loss for our way of life before the pandemic. Spending time in nature has come to provide a welcome relief from lockdown and an opportunity to reconnect with wildlife and ourselves. For frontline healthcare staff, working tirelessly in the fight against COVID-19, the significant and long-term stress experienced during this period is likely to be felt long after the pandemic has passed. In such cases, nature has an important role to play, as one NHS key worker told us during Mental Health Awareness Week: "At the start of the pandemic I had feelings of anticipatory anxiety. There was lots of uncertainty about whether we would have enough resources and equipment and be able to see loved ones. Connection with nature and being outdoors has been very important to me. After a difficult conversation or a challenging encounter when you need a few minutes it can be difficult to find a quiet space to sit and reflect, so having trees around the hospital will really help".

Spending time in nature has crucial therapeutic benefits, including reducing symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety, as well as improving cognitive functioning and strengthening the immune system. But access to nature in the UK remains unequally distributed, with areas with the least access to nature being among the poorest. According to a study by Natural England, children from low income and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) families are most affected, with 56% of under-16s from BAME households visiting the natural environment at least once a week, compared to 74% from white households. Children living in the most deprived areas of the UK are also nine times less likely to have access to good air quality and green spaces for play than those from more affluent areas.

Community groups and NGOs, such as NHS Forest and Trees for Cities play an important local role in increasing engagement, education and accessibility to green spaces. Rachel Stancliffe, Founder and Director of the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare highlights that “there is a huge amount of evidence for the physical and mental health benefits of trees and green spaces. With The NHS Forest we have been helping organizations improve their natural environment and reconnect their staff and patients with nature, for over 10 years.”

Trees play a key role in tackling poor air quality and providing a multitude of other benefits for nature and wildlife. Through this partnership, we will continue to bring people together through planting days to make these sites greener, healthier and happier places to be for many years to come and so that urban green spaces can be enjoyed by all members of our communities.

– David Elliott, Chief Executive of Trees for Cities

COVID-19 has highlighted wide disparities, including who is able to access and benefit from nature and green spaces. More must now be done to recognize the importance of the natural environment for our collective wellbeing and ensure an equal distribution of environmental benefits, resources and opportunities for all. How we emerge from this crisis will inform how we respond to others in the future, including the climate crisis. We cannot heal as a society if we continue to leave people behind. Whilst the challenging period is far from over, we can and should continue to take steps to incorporate nature into the healing process by supporting initiatives that close the green gap and ensure access to nature and local green spaces for everyone.

Ecosia’s tree planting partners NHS Forest and Trees for Cities will be coordinating volunteer and community-led tree planting days for the trees raised during this campaign. These will take place during the UK tree-planting season which begins in October 2020. Stay tuned for more information on how to sign up as a volunteer for our #GrowYourLove planting days.



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