- People can gain direct health benefits from ecosystems as a result of services such as food provision and disease control, as well as indirect health benefits through their interactions with natural environments.
- These health benefits are dependent on personal factors including age and gender and patterns of exposure, such as the length of time spent in nature.
- These benefits are also dependent on the natural spaces themselves; factors such as the biodiversity of spaces affect the health benefits they provide.
- The conservation and restoration of natural spaces can improve their ability to provide ecosystem services and therefore increase their benefits for human health and well-being.
- The provision of ecosystem services by urban natural spaces is becoming more important in terms of health benefits, due to the increasing numbers of people living in urban areas.
Ecosystem services are essential to support human health and well-being, providing everything from the basic requirements of life, such as food and water, to benefits to psychological health. This has been recognised, internationally and nationally, by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the UK National Ecosystem Assessment. Ecosystem services are increasingly being considered in the management of natural environments, through the use of schemes such as Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES).
Health benefits from different types of ecosystem service
|Supporting||These services include nutritional cycles and the process of soil formation. They benefit health indirectly by supporting the functioning of provisioning, regulating, and cultural ecosystem services.|
|Provisioning||Provisioning services supply a range of products which benefit health, from essentials for life, such as food, to medicinal plants .|
|Regulating||These services benefit health by regulating the environment, ensuring there is clean air, and controlling aspects of the environment which may be detrimental to human health such as floods and infectious diseases .|
|Cultural||Cultural services include the aesthetic and spiritual values of natural environments as well as their use for recreational activities and tourism. They have been associated with a range of health benefits including improved physical health, improved mental health, community cohesion and sense of identity   .|
How do ecosystem services benefit health?
Human health can be affected directly or indirectly by exposure to ecosystems:
- Direct benefits generally result from provisioning and regulating services  .
- Indirect benefits arise from people’s engagement and interactions with the natural environment.These exposures may be indirect, for example, views of natural environments , incidental, such as passing through a green or blue space on the way to work or another destination, or intentional, such as participating in outdoor recreational activities .
Various factors affect the health benefits that people receive from visiting natural spaces, including the type of activity and sociodemographic factors such as age and gender  . Research from the BESS programme has shown that benefits to health and well-being resulting from the natural environment are affected by the amount of time spent in nature, with longer trips being more beneficial than shorter trips  .
The natural characteristics of spaces also affect the health benefits they provide. Spaces which people perceive to be more biodiverse appear to be best for mental well-being, not necessarily those which are actually the most biodiverse . BESS researchers found that characteristics which people experience on their visits, such as vegetation and birds, have the greatest benefits for mental well-being . However, the actual biodiversity of natural spaces is important for physical health; the diversity of micro-organisms in these areas may contribute to people who live nearby having better functioning immune systems than those who live further away .
Disbenefits and threats to health
Whilst the benefits of visits to the natural environment are many, nature also has the potential to affect health negatively. This may be due to extreme weather, disease-carrying organisms such as ticks or mosquitoes, or exposure to substances such as pollen which are allergenic or otherwise harmful. Environmental threats to human health are likely to increase as a consequence of environmental change and biodiversity loss, since both tend to have adverse effects on ecosystem service provision. Detrimental effects on human health are predicted to result from the disruption of disease regulation, leading to increased rates of infectious disease, and from increases in extreme weather events such as flooding and heatwaves .
Conservation and restoration for health and well-being
Conservation and restoration – management of natural environments in order to maintain or improve ecosystem function – are therefore important to ensure that ecosystems continue to provide benefits for human health. There are various examples of successful projects from the UK:
- The F3UES consortium introduced a series of urban meadows in Bedford and Luton in partnership with local authorities. Interviews with local people found that the natural meadows were considered better for mental well-being than formal planting arrangements .
- The river Skerne near Darlington was restored in 1995. The project aimed to improve water quality and flood management as well as increasing access for the local community. Long-term monitoring shows the project has been successful in increasing biodiversity in the area and creating an important space for recreation .
Importance of urban ecosystem services for human health
By 2030, it is predicted that over 70% of the world’s population will live in a town or city . Many ecosystem services provided by urban natural spaces, such as flood control and urban heat island reduction, confer health benefits to the entire urban population. However, other health benefits can only be obtained by visits to these natural environments. BESS research indicates that currently a small proportion of the urban population make the majority of visits to urban nature . One method of encouraging visits may be through activities in natural spaces. For example, a recent review indicates that urban allotment gardening can have psychological and social benefits.
Encouraging the wider population to visit urban natural spaces requires making these spaces attractive to everyone. Despite concerns that local users do not like spaces which are managed for nature, BESS research indicates that the public appreciate spaces with a ‘messy’ ecological aesthetic as well as more formal environments, and that local authority stakeholders are aware of changing public opinion  . However, management to make spaces attractive can result in trade-offs. For example, planting trees can improve the appearance of green spaces and reduce urban heat island effect, but it can also increase the concentration of airborne biogenic volatile organic compounds (BVOCs), which can have detrimental effects on health. The management of urban natural spaces requires balancing the different ecosystem services these areas provide and the direct and indirect health benefits and disbenefits that result from these services (see research paper on 'Managing urban ecosystems for goods and services').