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The transformation and use of greenspace has never been more important. Scotland's Public Health Priorities recognise the importance of the natural environment which not only motivates us to take more regular physical activity but helps to tackle social isolation. The natural environment can help reduce stress, improve mood, and enhance recovery. Elaine Caldow, Public Health Programme Lead, NHS Ayrshire & Arran and Chair of the North Ayrshire Green Health Partnership Steering Group tells us more…

Although I’ve worked in Public Health for more years than I care to mention, and am firmly convinced of the benefits of exercise in all its forms, I’ve never really been a huge fan of sport or going to the gym (believe me I’ve tried!) One thing I’ve always enjoyed, though, is being outdoors – and I’m lucky to combine a personal passion with my day-to-day life.

Our Natural Health Service is a national cross government initiative led by Scottish Natural Heritage which aims to create a step change in how the natural environment is used, valued and protected. The programme has three strategic interventions, one of which is Green Health Partnerships (GHP) which are taking a whole systems approach at a local level to making the most of our greenspaces for public health benefits.

North Ayrshire has an abundance of fabulous green (and blue) spaces. We’re lucky enough to have rural and urban green spaces, coastal communities and islands on our doorstep. However, despite this, we’ve seen a downwards trend in the percentage of people who visit the outdoors regularly (once or more a week) with numbers having dropped from 71% in 2014 to 56% in 2017.

The GHP in North Ayrshire was formed in 2017. It brings together services and communities across the six localities in North Ayrshire to increase green health activity such as walking, cycling, growing, conservation and outdoor learning and play and make it accessible for all.

The GHP’s steering group is chaired by Public Health (NHS) with strategic support from the North Ayrshire Active Communities Strategic Partnership, to whom we report.  Partners include the Health and Social Care Partnership; North Ayrshire Council, environment sector partners, Ayrshire College, KA Leisure and the third sector. Our leadership is collective and all of the members have a key role to play.

North Ayrshire Community Planning partners are committed to supporting communities to use and develop the skills and assets they have and so the first thing we did was establish a Green Health Development Fund to help community groups set up local projects. North Ayrshire Council has taken a lead role in distributing this funding to our communities through the Participatory Budgeting (PB) process. We now have a flourishing Green Health Network of some 60+ projects which come together to share ideas, support, skills and learning and help steer the GHP.

Although we’re just beginning to gather the data to tell our story, we’re already starting to see some green shoots of success. Green health is more prominent in some of our partnership plans and strategies; our unloved public greenspaces around our hospitals, libraries, railway stations and schools are being brought back to life; our clinicians are beginning to refer patients in recovery or living with a long term condition into green health projects because they understand the benefits; and our communities have turned out in their hundreds to support our PB events and vote for our local green health projects.

We’ve got a long way to go and amidst a challenging environment of public service transformation, shrinking budgets and technological advances it’s sometimes hard to make the space and the case for green health collaboration. However, how we engage with and take care of our natural environment is beyond the reach of any individual organisation and it gives us a common language and space to engage.

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