Richmond Park & mental health

Natural environment vital for mental health and wellbeing

By James Cross, Chief Executive, Natural England

Natural England is the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England, helping to protect England’s nature and landscapes for people to enjoy and for the services they provide. They (together with approved partners such as The Royal Parks) have management responsibility for National Nature Reserves such as Richmond Park. More information about Natural England.

Growing up in the industrial north-east I certainly didn’t have such a grand setting as Richmond Park to enable me to connect with the natural world – my days were spent at the local recreation ground with friends; exploring; riding our bikes.

For me, the local park was like a refuge; away from the bustling streets of the town, it was the place we could play, relax and forget about school for a couple of hours! And it is for these reasons that I am so pleased that places like Richmond Park exist – a wonderful expanse of natural environment playing host to so much wonderful biodiversity right in the centre of the city as well as providing a place for recreation, contemplation and relaxation.

With 1 in 4 of us likely to encounter mental health problems at some point in our lives, the importance for caring for our mental, as well as our physical, health has never been more important and the role that nature can play in caring for our mental health is now widely recognised.

For the last 10 years, evidence we have gathered through a large weekly survey, the Monitor of Engagement through the Natural Environment (MENE), tells us the key motivation for people visiting the natural environment is for their health and wellbeing, and the opportunity to socialise with family and friends.

Access to nature helps keep people well; it makes us feel happy; it gives us a place to spend quality time.

Of course, it isn’t only places like Richmond Park that can provide help for mental health and wellbeing. With increasing pressures on space in our towns and cities, we are looking to alternative, innovative solutions – green walls and rooftops are dotted throughout the urban environment, providing colour, habitat, something different to look at and contemplate as well as providing carbon capture solutions.

I feel very proud that a key theme of Natural England’s Conservation Strategy for the 21st century is Putting People at the Heart of the Environment – be that the involvement in our decision-making or encompassed within our outcomes.

Working in partnership with groups like the Friends of Richmond Park, we are helping people recognise the relevance of the natural environment in their day-to-day lives, the choices they make and, with escalating costs to the health service for ‘traditional’ mental health remedies, the positive role the natural environment has to play in providing new, low cost ‘natural solutions’ for mental health and wellbeing.