Benefits of Outdoor Space - Guest Article by Nigel Thorne

Our Ambassador and landscape architect Nigel Thorne speaks about the relationship between our landscapes and our wellbeing. Using his years of experience to debate how important green spaces are to society as a whole.



As each new piece of new research appears, telling me of the beneficial nature of access to and time spent in a public park or whatever landscape or external environment, I wonder why society at large is so reluctant to change its ways in order that we might all feel better within ourselves – our minds and bodies – in our everyday lives; the rule not the exception? We are such strange creatures…

I have been exceptionally fortunate to always have had access to a garden most everywhere I have lived. Growing up on the coast, I also had the seaside and beaches. My father was a gardener and nurseryman, so I was always experiencing the wonders of the great outdoors as a child. Having chosen a profession as a landscape architect, I have benefitted greatly from the everyday experiences of working with all aspects of landscape and the environment. I consider myself very much the exception and not the rule and can, mostly, acknowledge the significant health and welfare benefits such experiences have brought me. Sadly, for the majority of the urban populations within most countries around the world, this is nothing like an everyday experience and cannot be taken for granted.

As the stresses and pressures of our work environments become ever greater, the availability and affordability of homes with private gardens are become ever rarer. Living, travelling and working – from ‘box’ to ‘box’ to ‘box’ and back – provide little escape and it’s no wonder our mental and physical well-being is suffering. With fewer private gardens available for homeowners to enjoy and relax in, the pressures upon our publically available (free at the point of access) parks and open spaces become ever greater. The importance and significance of their accessibility and availability has never been higher.

In recent years I was fortunate enough to be working on a commission for the Royal Parks. The commute from my home meant at least an hour or more on hot, over-crowded, sweaty tube trains (no matter the time of year) with the anxieties, frustrations and impatience of fellow travellers becoming all the more infectious as each journey panned out. But the reward for me was a day spent in one of the city’s Royal Parks, the green heart and lungs of the capital. As I walked from near chaos into the park, there was always an immediate change in my mindset, an instant feeling of relief and a weight lifting from my shoulders that offered a positive outlook no matter the challenges of the day ahead. Regular access to the ‘life of the park’ throughout the day meant that I could take a different perspective on everything that came my way during working hours and beyond. Having worked in the intensity and pressured environment of a more regular office-based urban arena, the difference was palpable. I was able to return home each evening having enjoyed my time at work – despite the return journey. It got to a point where my family hardly recognised me due to my new-found positivity and optimism.

My new role as a full-time educator allows for similar experiences – at least in terms of access to 12 hectares of managed estate gardens that comprise the college grounds. Academia is

 a world that engenders more than its fair share of mental and physical stresses and challenges but so much of this, I find, can be diluted by irregular interruptions during my day into the grounds and surrounds on the campus. This will be either to sit or stroll through a landscape that engenders relaxation and serenity at a variety of levels (despite being only metres from the madness and freneticism of the M25), enabling a different perspective on problems and challenges that arise.

When I reflect on this, I sometimes believe myself to be incredibly privileged and, of course, I am extremely grateful for all of the positive benefits that my professional engagemen

ts offer me. There have been times throughout my career when my physical and mental well-being have suffered just the same as most everyone’s in the ridiculously pressured world of employment – but, because of what I do, my automatic fall-back position is to spend time either in my own garden (whether it’s ‘work’ or relaxation) or to find space in a park, by a river or at the seafront. To me these are obvious venues for personal reflection and recuperation. Places that help me set my mind and thoughts back on an even keel for a wide variety of reasons, tangible or otherwise.

As an employer and manager of professional colleagues, their health and well-being has always been of paramount importance in order that everyone benefits from the necessity of being at work – a happy, healthy colleague generally means a happy, healthy work place. I have always made a point of placing their wellbeing at the forefront of my managerial approach, which has inevitably led to fewer absences and a steadier approach to productivity and positive engagement. This has always had more to do with common sense and an understanding of people rather than having to rely on what research tells me.

I have every respect for research, what it might tell us and how it might advance our knowledge, understanding and practice in most things. But should any individual, employer or manager of people need to be told (or even reminded?) that a person’s health and wellbeing should be of paramount importance and time spent in a garden, park or whatever public open space is beneficial? Really?


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