Nature access requires attention when addressing community health needs

While access to nature is an established social determinant of health with clear benefits to physical, mental, and social health, it does not receive as must attention by health care providers or health systems as other social concerns, according to a new piece by a Penn Medicine physician published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Two people in athletic gear walking on tree-lined path

“I think changing how people interact with their neighborhood environment, and changing the environment directly, is perceived as being hard and, perhaps, out of bounds of what is possible from health care,” says Eugenia South, an assistant professor of emergency medicine.

“We don’t learn about environmental contributors to health in medical school, and it is not part of traditional biomedical care,” South says. “And yet, changing the neighborhood, including increasing nature access, has the potential to have a huge health impact on a lot of people. It is worth pursuing.”

But access to nature and greenspace is often not given as much consideration when it comes to addressing the inequities that play into people’s health. This is in face of a multitude of studies that show that time in—and even just the presence of—nature can improve a community’s health, such as through a reduction in diabetes rates and stress-related conditions like heart disease. Moreover, other studies have shown that a lack of access to nature is tied to poorer outcomes, such as research that tied tree loss to increased cardiovascular and respiratory deaths.

South believes that this evidence demonstrates that health systems and health care providers should make more of an effort to increase greenspace access, or “prescribe doses” of it, to potentially boost community health as a result.

“Now, we need to specify how much of nature, or how accessible it needs to be, for people to get positive benefits—and negate any deficiencies,” South writes in the journal.

This story is by Frank Otto. Read more at Penn Medicine News.