There is considerable evidence that a healthy natural environment – particularly where people live – and regular access to it, can contribute positively to the health and wellbeing of the population, and that it has the most benefit on those with the highest levels of ill-health.

As society looks for cost effective ways to boost mental and physical health and quality of life, it is clear that increased positive interaction between people and the natural environment could be a significant part of the UK’s future health care arrangements.

However, this potential is not yet being fulfilled – in part because we do not fully understand how and why people interact with the natural environment, and which aspects of the environment, and people’s experience of it, lead to positive health and wellbeing outcomes.

Key questions

  • Does the biodiversity of a place affect people’s health and wellbeing?

  • Why are some sections of society, on whom natural environments could have the greatest positive impact, less likely than average to visit natural places?

  • What part does experience of and connection to nature play?

  • What role does access to a high quality natural environment have in the health and wellbeing of people at particularly significant stages in their lives (when they are most vulnerable to ill-health)?

If we understood the physical, psychological and socio-economic reasons why members of black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, the elderly, disadvantaged urban residents, and those from lower socio-economic groups (in particular) interact with the natural environment – and how this changes through their lives – it would enable us to design and manage our urban spaces more effectively to generate health and wellbeing benefits, and to engage critically important sections of society, to great social and economic benefit.


The IWUN project aim was to find out more about how Sheffield’s natural environment can improve the health and wellbeing of the city’s residents, and especially those with disproportionately high levels of poor health.

How did we do this?

The project delivered four work packages (WPs):

  1. An epidemiological study of Sheffield focusing on the relationships between natural environment characteristics, health inequalities, deprivation and natural environment usage

  2. A qualitative study of the values and beliefs relating to natural environments and health and wellbeing, focusing on low users as defined by the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE) (Natural England, 2015).

  3. A large-scale quasi-experimental quantitative study of the characteristics of the natural environment and natural environment experience associated with health and wellbeing based on data collection via a smartphone app.

  4. An integrative work package synthesising the project findings into a new ‘Green blue infrastructure – green health guide’ on

    • developing a green blue infrastructure valuation framework analysing the costs and benefits of different prototypical interventions for the delivery of a range of ecosystems services

    • exploring the barriers to implementation

    • developing new governance and policy structures and frameworks for delivery of a new green paradigm for wellbeing across the public, private and third sectors.

This project focused primarily on mental health benefits.


  • Common mental health problems affect 19% of the adult UK population (Beaumont and Lofts 2013)

  • Their prevalence is increasing and are the leading cause of years lived with disability (Whiteford et al. 2013).

  • Mental illness is linked to chronic diseases and all-cause mortality (Chesney et al. 2014)

  • This presents a huge economic burden; in England alone, over £105.2 billion a year (Centre for Mental Health, 2010)

Case study selection

This project (IWUN) took an applied approach to deepening understanding of the value of the natural environment and urban ecosystems for health and wellbeing at local authority level in the context of Sheffield (all work packages), utilising the Department of Landscape at Sheffield’s expertise in urban ecology and natural environment policy and practice, and well-established relationships with local stakeholders.