(L-R): Xiaoqi Feng and Thomas Astell-Burt. Image: Paul Jones

Horticulture Innovation Australia has teamed up with the University of Wollongong in a $3.2 million five-year research project that will investigate the health and wellbeing benefits of green space.

The “Greener Cities Healthier Lives” project will be led by green space and public health experts Associate Professor Thomas Astell-Burt and Dr Xiaoqi Feng, and will explore health outcomes across life stages from pregnancy to old age. For example, the research will look at whether living near green space leads to better pregnancy health outcomes, and also investigate what types of green space encourage physical activity amongst retirees.

Associate Professor Astell-Burt said rapid urbanisation had led to environments that were “mostly grey”, particularly in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas where both physical and mental health issues tended to cluster.

“Parks are great places to be physically active and meet with friends and family, both of which we already know are important for our health,” he said.

“But we also theorise that green spaces help provide places where we can find relief from the noise and air pollution associated with heavy traffic in our cities, as well as locations to relax and recuperate from stressful things that occur daily in our lives.”

Dr Feng said evidence already showed green space had health and wellbeing benefits, rather than purely aesthetic value.

“This project will address the key overarching research question now for industry and policy makers: what is the ideal amount of local green space that helps to keep all of us healthy and out of hospital?,” she said.

“We recognise that there may not be a one-size-fits-all solution and how people use green space is often dependent upon their age, which is why we will examine relevant outcomes and pathways that relate to pregnancy, childhood, adulthood and seniors.”

There will be five key themes relating to different life stages:

  • pregnancy and perinatal health
  • child health and educational attainment
  • adult mental health and chronic disease risk
  • health service use and healthcare costs
  • green space preferences and outdoor recreation among seniors

The research will be conducted by the Population Wellbeing and Environment Research Lab (PowerLab), part of the University of Wollongong’s Faculty of Social Sciences. PowerLab will draw on existing data including school NAPLAN results in order to provide insights on educational achievement and green space proximity; longitudinal studies of mental health and chronic disease in relation to green space; and hospital admissions and health service costs associated with local green spaces.

Funding is coming from the Hort Innovation Green Cities strategic co-investment fund, which aims to invest in research promoting increases in green space.

“This exciting project will not only inform the recommendations the nursery and landscape industries make to their clients, it will also enhance awareness of new understandings of green-space and health within the academic community internationally,” Hort Innovation chief executive John Lloyd said.