Could green spaces make a difference to people’s mental health? Marnie McEntee visited one site in Prestwich – where patients are taken on ‘green health walks’ – to find out…
It’s a bitterly cold morning in Manchester, I have exams and deadlines looming. Everything is feeling a bit stressful.
But the sun is peaking through the gleaming white clouds, and I’m strolling through the leafy grounds of the Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust’s Prestwich Site.
I’m being guided through the winding pathways of the Green Health Walk by Michelle Moreton, the site’s coordinator for the trail’s activities.
We take in our surroundings – dewy grass, robins, and raised beds – and suddenly it’s all calm.
The Greener Communities fund was created by environmental organisation, Hubbub and NHS Charities Together to set up more green spaces surrounding NHS sites across the UK.
The purpose? To emphasise the benefits of connecting with nature to improve mental and physical health.
One of the first projects was the Green Health Walk at the Prestwich site, coordinated by Manchester social enterprise Sow the City, which organisers say has been a huge success.
Catherine Clarke, project coordinator of Sow the City, said: “We’re enriching what the hospital has already been doing and they do it really well. We’re giving a bit of additional support to their well-being.”
Each project has mental and physical benefits for patients, staff, and visitors at NHS sites and help to promote biodiversity in their regions.
A study commissioned by the fund found engaging with nature can have a profound impact on well-being, with most of its 2,000 participants reporting the vast and varying effects of spending time in outdoor spaces on them.
Many of those polled in the North West said spending time in nature gave them a boost of happiness and helped them get through the day.
The study also revealed this can have extensive physical benefits, such as heightened immune functioning and a better night’s sleep.
The fund also focuses on increasing the presence of green spaces within urban areas, where some communities may not have had the chance to connect with nature.
Gardener and broadcaster Alan Titchmarsh has also lent his support to the fund, saying: “It’s so wonderful that the Greener Communities Fund exists and will enable more of us around the UK to experience the simple joys of the great outdoors.”
Prestwich Green Health Walk
The Greener Communities Fund has allowed projects like the Green Health Walk in Prestwich to be nurtured by organisations such as Sow the City, who took control of the trail.
At eleven acres, the site reaches the size of five and a half football pitches, and they are putting this space to good use.
The Prestwich site’s original unused green spaces have been transformed into a trail full of interest points, flowers, herbs, and wildlife which form an interactive experience for patients in their mental health facilities.
They hope to provide patients, staff, and visitors with a break from the usual formalities and repetition of a confined ward.
Catherine Clarke said: “It helps focus their mind and take it away from other things they might be thinking of and bring them to a more present, mindful moment.”
After receiving a grant from the Greener Communities fund, Sow the City stepped up their Prestwich project by looking at working with different units on the site, particularly the mental health wards.
The wards include the Chapman Barker unit for drug and alcohol detoxification and the John Denmark unit – a mental health unit for deaf people.
Many of the staff use the trail to take patients on guided walks to get them out of the ward, giving them the opportunity to explore the different signs and parts of the project.
Patients can also get involved in gardening or making and drinking their own mint tea, made from the herbs along the walk.
Moreton said: “We want people to touch them, take them away, taste them. For a lot of our patients this is the first time they’ve been encouraged or allowed to just sit in an open green space.”
Sow the City has worked closely with occupational therapists who had already been tirelessly focusing on finding ways to get the patients in the units active, and they have been able to provide staff with extra resources and funding.
Instant activities like creating plant pots from the gardens can give short-term patients just what they need.
Others staying for a while longer can get involved with projects that Sow the City representatives keep coming back to, like making raised beds that patients return to each summer.
It does not end here, from the funding Sow the City found a huge polytunnel in the Edenfield branch which they turned into an extended planting project, creating a brand-new community space elsewhere.
The Greener Communities Fund
The collaboration works with NHS sites, hospitals and GP surgeries to convert green spaces in the areas involved for patients to enhance their stay.
NHS foundations and charities have been selected to receive a grant to provide an engaging environmental connection which can have many benefits to an individual.
Gavin Ellis, Co-founder of Hubbub, said: “It’s been quite natural for us to look beyond what the environmental benefits might be and look for things like health or well-being and social benefits.
“It felt like a really natural partnership to work with NHS Charities Together.”
Hubbub is keen to emphasise the impact small projects like these can have on the fight against climate change.
Ellis said: “Spending time in nature can really stimulate people, get them engaged and help them think more broadly about what else they can do. It makes people care more about nature.”
He believes smaller, more personal schemes like this can counteract the overwhelming nature of climate change by allowing people to make a positive impact on the environment without taking on the pressure of a major crisis.
The Prestwich site is just one of four pilot projects spanning the UK which helped show the impact of the fund and the necessity for community green spaces in improving our mental health.
Each project provides something different, whether it’s creating communities for certain groups within society, or enhancing the experiences of visitors at hospitals or surgeries.
Map showing the 14 Greener Communities UK projects (pilot projects in orange)
With 14 projects now up and running, the collaboration has been such a success that they plan to fund another round of around ten projects across the UK, hoping to make this an annual fund.
NHS Charities Together Director of Fundraising, Louise McCathie has previously discussed the scheme, saying: “The more time we spend in nature, the more we all benefit – and we can help reduce pressure on the NHS too. That’s why it’s so important everyone gets that chance, wherever they live and whatever their circumstances.”
I embark on my journey back to the hub of work and exams. Worry threatens to flood in once again.
But this time, I feel lighter.
I take deep breath, I’m more at ease and I am ready to keep on going.