Lancaster University brings a pioneering approach to a new consortium, which has been awarded £7.1m to boost research on urban spaces and health inequalities.
The consortium – ‘GroundsWell: Community-engaged and Data-informed Systems Transformation of Urban Green and Blue Space for Population Health’ – will explore how transforming cities with nature can reduce health inequalities, primarily around chronic and non-infectious diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and mental health.
Dr Ruth Hunter, from the Centre of Public Health at Queen’s University Belfast and Groundswell Co-Director, said: “There is strong evidence that natural environments within urban areas, such as parks, woodlands (green spaces) as well as lakes and beaches (blue spaces), have positive impacts on health.
“These urban green and blue spaces could be huge assets for protecting and equalising health if they were available, accessible, valued and well-used, particularly by less advantaged groups. The problem is that they are not, which is what this project aims to address.”
The £7.1 million award from the UK Prevention Research Partnership (UKPRP) will enable researchers across the UK to investigate the impact that nature can have in helping to prevent and reduce these health inequalities in urban areas.
Dr Ana Porroche-Escudero, from Lancaster Environment Centre, is leading a cross-cutting theme on Health Inequalities with Professor Rich Mitchell from Glasgow University. Their role is to ensure that the way the research is carried out reflects and delivers the equity [PA1] aims of the project.
“Many programmes say they are working to address health inequalities and on paper it looks really good, but when it comes to practice, equity is not routinely embedded throughout the research process in a systematic way.”
“In GroundsWell we want to walk the talk. My role is to work with colleagues across all 7 work packages to ensure, support and share consistent and comparable health equity thinking in everything we do, in every bit of the research process from community and professional involvement to data and analyses, as well as in research structures.”
“For instance, when we start deciding priorities for topics, we will carry equity assessments to understand which social groups are affected differently, what factors may have caused these unequal experiences or impacts and what kind of actions may address the roots of inequalities.”
The Consortium will break away from the usual approach in large research projects where health inequalities is the focus of specialised teams.
“Rich and I are not responsible for health inequalities; GroundsWell is committed to make inequalities a Consortium-wide responsibility; where it is everyone’s business and so we will support thinking and capability in all colleagues, partners and communities – we want to train the trainers so to speak.”
This approach to inequalities builds on the pioneering work on health equity mainstreaming, led by Ana Porroche-Escudero at the National Institute of Health Research Applied Research Collaboration North West Coast, which was the first large scale research collaboration of its kind that sought to embed equity into all their research processes in a systematic way.
Over five years, GroundsWell will develop innovative approaches to work with communities where there are high levels of health inequalities. Communities and professionals working in those communities will be key partners to develop and implement ways to improve health inequalities and prevent a range of chronic illnesses through harnessing the positive impact of nature.
UKPRP supports multidisciplinary teams looking at ways to prevent non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, poor mental health, obesity, cancer and diabetes. Non-communicable diseases make up the majority of illnesses in the UK and account for an estimated 89 per cent of all deaths.
Professor Kevin Fenton, London Regional Director for Public Health England and Chair of the UKPRP Scientific Advisory Board, said: “UKPRP is an important and timely programme that we need to address health inequalities and prevent the onset of non-communicable disease.
“The projects funded under this programme are pushing the boundaries of prevention research by taking multidisciplinary approaches to addressing the complexities of population health, with the aim of improving people’s lives and health.
“As we look to build back fairer from the pandemic, the creation of healthy communities and places is a key priority.”
The project will use a range of approaches to ensure that communities – including residents, businesses and organisations – are fully represented. The Consortium will comprise of active, equal and embedded members and partners at all stages of decision making and will involve co-designing solutions that will benefit communities.
Professor Sarah Rodgers, from the University of Liverpool, and GroundsWell Co-Director, said: “Working with local authorities and charities, we will record how our environments change through time. Knowing when parks were adapted to encourage new visitors and how this subsequently impacts health outcomes will help provide robust evidence on what works and for whom.
“Everyone should have access to the right environments to support their health and wellbeing.”
Professor Ruth Jepson, from the University of Edinburgh and GroundsWell Co-Director, added: “We propose a new way of working which encourages communities and citizens to work with our partner organisations to plan, design and manage urban green and blue spaces so that they benefit everyone, especially those who need it most. Through our partnerships and with the active involvement of our communities, we will identify small and large-scale projects which can be developed and evaluated. We will involve communities and citizens in all stages of the work; from planning and prioritising, to collecting data through citizen science apps, to writing, speaking and blogging on what is working well and what is not.”
The multi-disciplinary team involves researchers from Queen’s University Belfast, University of Edinburgh, University of Liverpool, University of Exeter, University of Glasgow, Cranfield University, Lancaster University, Liverpool John Moore’s University and Colorado State University.
Partners include Belfast, Edinburgh and Liverpool City Councils, Public Health Agencies of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, Greenspace Scotland, Scottish Forestry, Edinburgh and Lothians Health Foundation, Department for Infrastructure Northern Ireland, Belfast Healthy Cities, Climate Northern Ireland, Health Data Research UK, Administrative Data Research Centre, NatureScot, Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust, Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, Liverpool Health Partners, NIHR ARC Northwest Coast, NHS Liverpool Clinical Commissioning Group, Wirral Council, the Scottish Government, Edinburgh Health and Social Care Partnership, HSC Research and Development Office Northern Ireland, Spotteron, Translink, Anaeko, AECOM Ltd, The Paul Hogarth Company and Moai Digital Ltd.
Charities and Non-Governmental Organisations include EastSide Partnership, Ashton Centre, Regenerus, Sustrans, Cycling UK, CHANGES, The Mersey Forest.