This week (13-17th November) is Mental Health and Wellbeing Week at the University of Edinburgh, where the Students’ Association has partnered the University and the Sports Union to run a programme of events, talks and workshops on how to take care of yourself and others. 

In this short article, Catharine Ward Thompson - Professor of Landscape Architecture and Director of the OPENspace research centre at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) - highlights the benefits of getting outdoors for good mental health and wellbeing, based on a long research career exploring the links between place and mood.

We are incredibly lucky, in Edinburgh, to have access to a variety of green spaces - from The Meadows to Holyrood Park - within an easy walk or cycle of ECA and the wider University area.

My research focuses on the benefits to be gained from getting out and about in places such as these, from getting out in the fresh air and being physically active to having social contact with other people in the community.

One thing that comes out strongly in studies is the restorative power of spending time outdoors, whereby we can recharge our mental batteries after too much time focused on work (especially via computer screens) and benefit from natural scents and sounds by spending time in nature. The ‘soft fascination’ of natural environments helps us to concentrate better when we return to work or study, for example.

As well as showing good evidence for this, OPENspace looks at how environments can best support the things that people like to do outdoors, so that everyone who wants to access nature can do so easily and enjoyably.

Student walking up Calton Hill
Image: Huanran (Patrick) Sun
Student walking up Calton Hill

One thing that comes out strongly in studies is the restorative power of spending time outdoors, whereby we can recharge our mental batteries after too much time focused on work (especially via computer screens) by spending time in nature.

Our natural health service

Scotland is an excellent place for studying the positive, health-promoting - what we call salutogenic - role the environment can play in people’s lives.

Backed by Scottish Government, there is much support here for the idea of a natural health service, as promoted by Scottish Natural Heritage, the Forestry Commission (long-term supporters of our work) and other partners.

To evidence the benefits for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities, OPENspace is constantly exploring new methods of assessing what really makes a difference to people’s health, wellbeing and quality of life.

In one recent study, for example, we used cortisol sampling to look at whether green space in the home neighbourhood can impact on stress levels, finding that for women, in particular, it may have a positive effect on stress regulation, reducing the effect of stress in people’s lives or helping them cope with it better.

Catharine Ward Thompson receiving her Honorary Doctorate from SLU
Image: Jenny Svennås-Gillner/SLU
Catharine Ward Thompson receiving her Honorary Doctorate from SLU

Younger years and later life

In our research, we have found that going to green spaces in younger years can influence how much you are likely to do so in later life, unlocking all the benefits that go with increased contact with nature.

In another study, focusing on young people aged 12 to 18, we uncovered a range of mental health benefits to be gained from access to wild adventure space, including improved positive self-image, self-esteem and ability to set goals, and confidence in facing uncertainty.

In our latest research, looking at people aged 65+, we have found that green spaces can offer a respite from the tiring demands that busy urban places make on our directed attention - even a short walk can lift the mood - and that healthy ageing begins much earlier in life than we currently plan for.

So, for your mental health and wellbeing, now and well into the future, please do consider leaving your studio, desk or workspace and getting out into nature, even if only for a short time each day.

In recognition of her work on inclusive access to outdoor environments, and the links between landscape and health, Catharine was recently awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in Uppsala. On the eve of her graduation ceremony, she gave a public lecture on her research which was streamed live and is now available online.

If you are interested in landscape and health, you may like to know more about our MSc in Landscape and Wellbeing programme, which Catharine co-directs with Dr Simon Bell. Both Catharine and Simon are also available to supervise PhDs in the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.



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