2020 Challenge for Scotland's Biodiversity

A strategy for the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity in Scotland.

3 Biodiversity, health and quality of life


Improved health and quality of life for the people of Scotland, through investment in the care of green space, nature and landscapes.

Key steps

  • Provide opportunities for everyone to experience and enjoy nature regularly, with a particular focus on disadvantaged groups.
  • Support local authorities and communities to improve local environments and enhance biodiversity using green space and green networks, allowing nature to flourish and so enhancing the quality of life for people who live there.
  • Build on good practice being developed by the National Health Service ( NHS) and others to help encourage greenspace, green exercise and social prescribing initiatives that will improve health and wellbeing through connecting people with nature.
  • Increase access to nature within and close to schools, and support teachers in developing the role of outdoor learning across the Curriculum for Excellence.
  • Encourage public organisations and businesses to review their responsibilities and action for biodiversity, and recognise that increasing their positive contribution to nature and landscapes can help meet their corporate priorities and performance.


Connecting with nature enriches our lives. Many benefits arise from this across a range of policy areas, including health, wellbeing, education, community development and regeneration. Better integration of environmental and social objectives will undoubtedly secure long-term benefits for people and nature. This chapter reviews progress and considers the next steps needed to achieve this integration, which offers one of the most exciting challenges as we move towards 2020.

Public bodies have a duty under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 [8] to 'further the conservation of biodiversity' as they carry out their work, reporting their actions at least every three-years. This duty is not just beneficial to biodiversity; it can also help meet other public service aspirations and, in the process, provide significant cost savings and efficiencies.

There are many different ways in which public bodies meeting this duty can benefit biodiversity and a range of other policy goals including:

  • Health - contact with nature can improve physical and mental health and encourage healthier lifestyles.
  • Education - outdoor learning is a core part of the Curriculum for Excellence.
  • Parks and Grounds - management of greenspaces and creating wildlife friendly spaces around offices.
  • Planning and Development - is about more than just protected species, green infrastructure can benefit both people and nature.
  • Volunteering - encourage staff to take part in local projects and take pride in their local community.
  • Transport - road and rail verges provide great habitat for wildflowers; nature friendly management can offer potential cost savings as well.

Investment in biodiversity is also good for many business sectors. It links with corporate social and environmental responsibility programmes.

Nature, health, and the economy - the developing evidence base

The long-standing and largely successful approach to environmental health has focused on the minimisation of environmental 'bads', such as air or water pollution. Today, a new extra emphasis is being placed on environmental 'goods'. The accessibility, diversity and quality of much of Scotland's natural environment is now recognised as an important resource for promoting physical and mental health, improving educational outcomes, and supporting community development and regeneration. We can enhance the benefits of these natural assets through:

  • better planning, design and management of accessible high quality green spaces, close to where people live, work and learn.
  • encouraging greater physical activity and contact with nature through informal recreation and play, environmental volunteering and outdoor learning.
  • using the outdoors in programmes for health treatment and rehabilitation, on NHS land and elsewhere.

'A relevant environmental health agenda for the 21st century is as much about the creation of places which engender good physical and mental health, as it is about protection from hazards.'

Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer Scotland, 2006.

Supporting this thinking is a range of research that describes and quantifies the health benefits from physical activity while in contact with nature. These include:

  • improved levels of physical and mental health through regular participation in informal recreation, volunteering and learning in the outdoors.
  • improved rates of recovery from physical and mental health problems, and a guard against future illness.
  • increased physical and mental wellbeing, capacity and confidence, both in individuals and communities more generally.
  • a stronger commitment to healthier lifestyles in young people by stimulating interest in the natural world and promoting outdoor activity and play, especially as part of the early years and primary school intervention.

Evidence suggests that investment in nature and landscapes can also be cost effective. Analysis of an 8-week wildlife and nature activity programme in Perth and Kinross for patients with a variety of mental health problems produced a social benefit of £12.43 for each £1 spent. An analysis of 'Greenlink' - a multi-use path running between Strathclyde Country Park and Motherwell town centre generated a social return of £7.63 for every £1 invested. Similarly, investment in a natural play space at Merrylee High School in Glasgow produced far greater benefits to learning, and physical and emotional wellbeing than the same expenditure on a traditional tarmac playground.

Linking nature and nurture - from policy to action

The contribution that nature and landscapes can make to health and quality of life is increasingly recognised by the medical profession and policy makers more generally. The Ministerial Task Force on Health Inequalities (2008) [37] recommended that Government, NHS Boards and other public sector organisations should take steps to encourage the use and enjoyment of green space by all, as a means of improving health. Equally, the Scottish Government's strategy on health and the environment, Good Places, Better Health (2008) [38] , recognises that the physical environment has a significant impact on the health of Scotland's people and that action is required to create positive physical environments that nurture better health and wellbeing for everyone. It focused on children's health, setting a vision in which 'children play, explore and relax outdoors in streets, parks, green places and open spaces and have contact with nature in their everyday lives'. These two examples illustrate the significant change in approach that is now emerging across a number of policy areas.

Improving places for people and nature

The Scottish Government's regeneration strategy, Achieving a Sustainable Future [39] , published in December 2011 contains a vision of 'a Scotland where our most disadvantaged communities are supported and where all places are sustainable and promote wellbeing.' Alongside other national policy statements such as Architecture and Placemaking (2012) [40] and Scottish Planning Policy (2010) [21] , the regeneration strategy also highlights the importance of place making and the impact it can have on the long-term sustainability and quality of the communities created.

The provision of good quality green space, parks and paths, and associated green networks, is an important component of place making and regeneration. This is supported by national planning policy and practice. Most ambitiously, the National Planning Framework (2009) [18] proposed the development of a Central Scotland Green Network, with the aim of creating 'an environment to support healthy lifestyles and good physical and mental wellbeing'. More generally, strategic approaches such as open space audits and core path plans are valuable tools for local authorities, especially when complemented by investment programmes targeted at increasing the opportunities for public enjoyment and the biodiversity value of the green space created. In taking this forward, it is vital that communities are fully involved in the development and management of their green spaces.

Encouraging physical activity and contact with nature

Increasing the number of visits to the outdoors has been identified as a key Scottish Government indicator of success. Such visits encourage a stronger outdoor culture and help instil greater personal commitment to biodiversity. SNH's 'Simple Pleasures Easily Found' campaign is aimed at encouraging people to explore and enjoy their local green space and path networks. The celebration of the 'Year of Natural Scotland' (2013) and the 'Year of Homecoming' (2014) provide an important platform for increasing effort across the public sector to encourage more people to enjoy the outdoors and its nature.

Environmental volunteering is another important means of increasing physical activity and engagement with nature. The Scottish Government and SNH are funding the Forum for Environmental Volunteering to help build capacity in organisations to support more volunteers for outdoor tasks. Increased participation in voluntary biological recording is being encouraged through 'citizen science' initiatives. Volunteers benefit from greater physical activity and associated health benefits. But they will also experience the social aspects of working towards a shared goal and gain a stronger pride of place. Volunteer initiatives for young people can help create new skills and provide important training; these will be a priority for the Scottish Government over the coming years.

While participation is increasing across Scotland, it is lowest amongst the most disadvantaged in society. More effort is needed to ensure everyone can enjoy the outdoors, whatever their background, health or age. All public sector bodies are required to consider these issues as part of their new equality duties. Investment in opportunities for natural play are also a recognised part of the Scottish Government Early Years Framework (2012) [41] .

Developing a natural health service

With its estimated 1,800 properties and 2,900 hectares of land, the NHS has considerable potential to use greenspace within its estate for health treatment and rehabilitation, and for increasing physical activity and contact with nature for patients, visitors and staff. A national programme has been established by the Green Exercise Partnership; made up of SNH, FCS and NHS Health Scotland to help health boards make more use of this resource. This has included an audit of the overall estate and the development and implementation of master plans for specific sites. These include path developments, tree planting and other improvements for people and nature. Continuing effort is needed to integrate this work into policy and practice and to increase recognition within all levels of the NHS of the contribution these greenspace assets can make to health.

Several programmes and projects focusing on physical activity and mental health issues have also been established; involving walking, green gyms, gardening and eco-therapy schemes. Many of these have been set up by voluntary and community groups, with short-term funding and mixed levels of awareness and commitment from health professionals. There is considerable scope to promote and develop the use of nature and landscape in health policy. Businesses across Scotland should also consider similar initiatives on their land, on the basis that a healthy work force is a productive one.

Learning out of doors

The role of outdoor learning is firmly established in the new Curriculum for Excellence and is part of Education Scotland's school inspection programme. There are also good examples of school grounds that encourage physical activity and contact with nature. More needs to be done, particularly in central Scotland, to ensure that all schools either have such resources or can obtain them locally. School building, refurbishment programmes and estate management plans need to make better provision for greenspace and contact with nature, building on the work of Grounds for Learning, EcoSchools and the Forest Schools Programme.

Developing enthusiasm and skills in teachers through continuing professional development is also important. The 'Teaching in Nature' demonstration project run by SNH and other initiatives by Education Scotland and the National Park Authorities have shown how the capacity of teachers to take learning outdoors can be increased through a peer-led approach. Realising the benefits of outdoor learning for our children, and society more widely, requires this approach to be absorbed into relevant strategies and day-to-day teaching practices.

Key issues and opportunities

The examples above illustrate the potential of Scotland's nature and landscapes to improve public health and quality of life. Relatively little public expenditure is required, especially in comparison to the overall health budget and it represents good preventative spend.

In order to realise this potential we need a sustained commitment to these programmes and projects from the environment, health and education sectors. Greater investment should realise the benefits and cost effectiveness of these nature-based interventions. This is not easy given the small scale of many projects and the many organisations involved. However, it is important to develop this case, especially against the backdrop of increasing financial constraints within the NHS, local authorities, and across the public sector generally.

While the Biodiversity Duty (2004) [9] places important responsibilities on public bodies, real changes in our relationship with the natural world will only come about when we recognise the full public benefits provided by nature. This is beginning to happen in the health sector, helped by a more holistic approach to health care focused on place and communities, the economy and the environment, as well as medical interventions. These lessons need to be taken up in other sectors and businesses.

Public bodies are urged to play their part in realising these outcomes, with a more collaborative approach between sectors and connecting single outcome agreements, community planning and health partnerships. The environment sector has a leadership role here, and the biodiversity community should learn from the demonstration projects that are beginning to win the hearts and minds of the professionals and the public.

Key messages from this chapter

  • Scotland's nature and landscapes are key assets for public health and wellbeing and more should be done to use the natural world to help improve the quality of our lives.
  • There is a strong case for investing more in nature close to where people live, work, or go to school as this can improve public health and reduce pressure on health budgets in the longer term.
  • Sustained investment in good-practice demonstration projects is required if we are to realise the longer-term improvements in physical activity and mental health.
  • Investment in the availability of good quality greenspace in and around schools and other centres for learning will improve educational outcomes.
  • All organisations with responsibility for biodiversity must work towards bringing this into their mainstream policies and practices.

What will be different as a result of applying the principles in this chapter?

  • More people will enjoy nature, and recognise the benefits this brings for their health and quality of life.
  • Our health and wellbeing will be improved.
  • A greater number of people will enjoy, understand and support nature.
  • Nature close to where people live and work will be better cared for, including that on public land owned by the NHS and education authorities.


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