The case for increased development and equitable access to green and blue spaces continues to grow. Exposure to green and blue spaces are associated with improved physical and mental health Public Health England and Green and Blue Wellness: A Model for improving Physical and Mental Health and communities within which green spaces are located are associated with healthier populations. As societies continue to grapple with the associated costs of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), there is a need for continued, holistic public education campaigns including more emphasis on equitable access to community spaces that encourage physical activity through opportunities for exercise, recreation and social cohesion. In Jamaica, there has been a recognition that with NCDs accounting for approximately 80% of the deaths on the island in 2016, a multi-faceted, evidence based approach must be adopted to address this threat to our health and economic growth. The Ministry of Health is to be commended on the “Jamaica Moves” Initiative which aims to educate Jamaicans on NCDs and the importance of regular physical activity, diet, health screening and a healthier lifestyle. This is an excellent initiative that should be supported and expanded. The expansion should also take into account the need for partnerships with residents, the private sector and international donors for funding to develop green and blue spaces within a defined acceptable distance standard for under-served communities. This standard in other countries is developed based on local research which identifies the distance residents feel that they can reasonably walk to access these spaces. This will be important, since access to the space should be relatively easy and low cost, ideally no cost.
The development and maintenance of these spaces have been shown to:
Encourage physical activity which reduces rates of obesity particularly among children. This can be further enhanced if playground equipment, walking and/or cycling trails are included.
Reduce depression through the therapeutic effect of trees, plants and bodies of water. Research has shown that this effect is seen not only in the general population but among senior citizens who are likely to suffer from the ill effects of isolation.
The potential for improvement in the mental wellbeing of users cannot be overstated for Jamaica with its ghastly levels of crime which threaten the mental wellbeing of our entire society, the full effects of which are yet to be seen.
Improve social cohesion and local social interaction among residents by providing a clean, appealing and relaxing space to meet.
Provide a space for youth to learn the tenets of social interaction and conflict resolution in a low stress environment near to home.
Improve the environmental quality of an area by providing improved air and water quality, noise absorption, and reduce ‘urban heat island’ effects.
Enhance the quality of physical activity when it takes place outdoors, research has shown that exercising in green spaces is associated with greater levels of mental health than exercising indoors.
Of course, the creation of these spaces is only one aspect, since maintenance will be critical to any real long term benefit. Collaboration with communities will be critical to gain buy-in, and ownership as well as commitment to finding creative means to maintaining and protecting these spaces from vandalism. Having worked in communities across Jamaica, there is little doubt that this is possible and not only possible but sustainable with the right approach and inclusion of key stakeholders. Community Development is more than improved physical infrastructure and meetings, at the heart of it is the need for residents to have access to opportunities to improve their lives. Let us not neglect the importance of these spaces as we work to improve the health of our people, our children, our nation.