Spending time in the great outdoors is proven to boost wellbeing, but how can the arts encourage people to do it? Nicky Goulder describes one project that is doing just that. 

Photo of bird box
A 'bird hotel', designed and built by the young people in Milton Keynes

The benefits of spending time outdoors in green spaces, whether rural countryside and forests or urban parks and walkways, has been well publicised in recent months. Natural England reported on the relationship between our engagement with the outdoors and wellbeing, finding that access to the natural environment has a positive impact on our confidence, levels of social interaction, mortality rates and mental and physical health.

Access to these green spaces is far from equal, however. Those who are less likely to visit green spaces include people with learning disabilities, mental ill-health, young people and those living in areas of deprivation. This has created the type of health inequality that we are seeing today which is estimated to cost the NHS around £70bn a year, with 550 people dying each day in the UK as a result of avoidable inequalities. Stressing the importance of our environments, Natural England reports that if everyone was given equal access to green spaces, the saving to the NHS would be £2.1bn.

The creative arts are far from being a luxury and should not be limited to opera houses, theatres, concert halls and art venues

Create, a creative arts charity that works with people whose lives are affected by disabilities and ill-health, is demonstrating how the creative arts can help us do just that. One example is the Milton Keynes redway system, shared paths for pedestrians and cyclists that stretch 270 kilometres through parkland and across the floodplain of the Great Ouse.

As part of our creative:connection programme, we have arranged for students with and without disabilities to design a series of artworks to enhance their local redway. These designs will be used as inspiration by a professional artist for a new artwork to be included in the redways. By pairing special and mainstream schools (White Spire School and Milton Keynes Academy), and creating an opportunity for students to be part of the process of designing art that will enrich the redways, we are fostering friendships between disabled and non-disabled young people and providing them with a way to engage with their local green space.

Improving access is not just about removing physical barriers to a space but about making those who use it feel welcome and safe, maintaining a positive appearance of the area, and giving people a sense of ownership and satisfaction in the places they might visit. Creating artworks to impact the redway has not only improved its appearance, but has created a talking point (the young people have come up with the idea of building a highly imaginative ‘bird hotel’) and has drawn people to engage with the space.

We designed creative:connection to get children and young people with and without disabilities talking. The programme gives them the opportunity to collaborate creatively with other young people who they are unlikely to meet otherwise. Access to green space ties into this because green space is also social space. In Public Health England’s latest report Local Action on Health Inequalities, published in September, emphasis is placed on the ability of outdoor design to promote social interactions. By increasing access to green spaces, we are therefore also diversifying the socialising that is going on within them.

By sharing this example of how the creative arts can be used to increase access to green spaces, foster a culture of participation in our communities, as well as address health and social inequalities, we are hoping to inspire more projects like ours to take place. The creative arts are far from being a luxury and should not be limited to opera houses, theatres, concert halls and art venues. By integrating them into our green spaces and enabling local people to get involved in the design and production process, big gains can be won in the battle against health and social inequality.

Nicky Goulder is Chief Executive and Co-founder of Create.

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Photo of Nicky Goulder