A healthy environment means healthy citizens and a more vibrant EU

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Pregnant women who live close to nature areas give birth to bigger babies. [Stephane Mignon/Flickr]

Europeans have some of the highest rates of anxiety, depression and other non-infectious diseases in the world. Today, on World Health Day, nature is an overlooked remedy, argues Magda Stoczkiewicz.

Magda Stoczkiewicz is director of Friends of the Earth Europe.

Every year, a quarter of Europeans suffer from depression or anxiety – accounting for half of all chronic sick leave. These, alongside other non-communicable diseases (such as diabetes, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases), have reached epidemic proportions in Europe – often linked to ‘lifestyle’ risks such as high blood pressure, lack of physical activity, poor air quality and obesity. 86% of deaths in Europe are from these diseases, and it’s pressuring over-burdened health services.

Recent research offers a glimpse of how nature access and protection could make an unexpected contribution to healing an ailing, stressed-out population. It could also help to restore well-being to a middle-aged and frazzled European Union.

According to a growing body of evidence, nature is an under-recognised healer. Access to nature helps to reduce depression, stress, and obesity, and to boost overall well-being, physical activity, and children’s development. For example, doctors prescribe fewer anti-depressants in urban areas that contain more trees. Middle-aged men in deprived urban areas have a 16% lower risk of dying when they live close to nature. Pregnant women with good access to nature areas record lower blood pressure and give birth to larger babies.

But the well-being benefits of nature are not spread equally – poorer city neighbourhoods too often lack access to nature and have fewer opportunities for healthy activities. In one study, children living in deprived areas were found to be nine times less likely to have access to nature and places to play; and more likely to experience higher obesity and inactivity levels.

At 60 years old, the European Union is in need of a check-up – and desperately requires a new regimen to prove its worth to an increasingly sceptical public. The European project needs big ideas to reconnect with its citizens. As we mark World Health Day – the focus of which this year is depression – what would happen if the EU were to put nature and people’s health at the heart of the EU project? The EU could redefine itself and put the health, well-being, and a quality of life for all citizens, as well as the long-term health of our shared environment, at the core of a reinvigorated Europe.

The EU can restore trust in its institutions only if it can convince citizens that it exists to improve their quality of life. Yet so far, this is completely missing from debates about the future of Europe. President Juncker’s ‘five scenarios’ focus on narrow, uninspiring questions about levels of integration and whether the EU should carry on, or do more, or do less – this has neglected the crucial element of who it’s doing this for and with what purpose. Beyond Juncker’s plans for GDP growth stimulated by deregulation, how will European integration help all citizens to live well?

We need a ‘sixth scenario’ for the future of Europe – one that focuses on delivering a fair, healthy, and environmentally sustainable Europe for all. The purpose should be social well-being in the provision of quality, affordable services and a reinforced social fabric which binds us together, and a healthy natural environment that sustains life, protects our clean water and air and tackles climate change.

Such an alternative approach has the triple benefits of improving health outcomes, protecting our natural environment and restoring the EU’s self-esteem.

One bold idea the EU could adopt to mark this change of course, is a target for vibrant nature within 300 metres for every citizen – as the cities of Oslo and Victoria-Gasteiz (in Spain) have done. An essential immediate step would be to commit to actions to fully implement strong nature protection laws, which it can do in its action plan due later this month.

Ensuring a better quality of life and a right to nature for all could help Europe to connect with citizens’ most fundamental hopes and needs in the next decades. It would help improve health and well-being and reduce social and health inequalities. And it could help restore well-being to the EU project.