I joined the University of Essex in 1997 to start my masters in Environment, Science and Society (MEnv - distinction). After completion of my studies I took up a role as a research officer working with Jules Pretty in the Interdisciplinary Centre for Environment and Society (iCES) (November 1998) working on various Sustainable Agriculture research projects and over 30 Participatory Appraisals for communities in the UK. Since 2004 I have also been part of the green exercise research team here at Essex working with Jules Pretty and Jo Barton researching the health benefits of contact with nature. I am now thedeputy director of the Essex Sustainability Institute and a senior research officer in the School of Biological Sciences.
Research, training skills and expertise include ‘green exercise’ and ‘green care’, ‘care farming’, community development, farming and food systems, sustainable agriculture, deliberative and participatory methods for assessments in many contexts, Participatory Appraisal training and questionnaire and fieldwork design. I also teach on a number of undergraduate modules, supervise BS348 Sustainability, BS712 Research Methods and the Masters in Environmental Resources and Management (ERM).
My research interests fall under 2 main themes – i) Green care and green exercise and ii) Sustainable and ecological agriculture
Green care and green exercise
· Care farming, wilderness therapy and other green care interventions
· The health benefits of outdoor experiences for individuals experiencing mental health challenges
· Changes in behaviour and lifestyle after green care interventions
· Children's relationship with nature and greenspaces
· Wilderness experiences for adults with mental health issues and disaffected youth
· Individual's perceptions of accessibility to rural and urban settings
· The value of urban parks and rural countryside to the nation's health
· Fieldwork and questionnaire design
The evidence indicates that nature can make positive contributions to our health, help us recover from pre-existing stresses or problems, have an immune effect by protecting us from future stresses, and help us to concentrate and think more clearly. We have discerned three levels of engagement with nature:
- The first is viewing nature, as through a window, or in a painting.
- The second is being in the presence of usually nearby nature, which may be incidental to some other activity, such as walking or cycling to work, or reading on a garden seat to talking to friends in a park.
- The third is active participation and involvement with nature, such as gardening or farming, trekking or camping, cross-country running or horse-riding.
Our research has focused on the measurement of the effects of different scenes (rural pleasant, rural unpleasant, urban pleasant, urban unpleasant, control) on 100 subjects undertaking physical activity; measurement of the effects of different types of outdoor activities (walking, cycling, fishing, nature conservation, woodland activities, horse-riding and boating) on 263 subjects at 10 locations in the UK; and measurement of the effects of two urban park and canal regeneration schemes on 92 local users.
We have found that green exercise results in significant improvements in self-esteem and mood measures, as well as leading to significant reductions in blood pressure. The physical activity consumes calories which further contributes to well-being. This research has built on earlier research findings from the USA, Japan and Scandinavia.
Findings of this recent research suggest that therapeutic applications of various green exercise activities and other nature based approaches are effective at promoting health and well-being. Collectively, such approaches have been termed ‘green care’. There is a growing movement towards green care in many contexts, ranging from social and therapeutic horticulture (STH), animal assisted interventions, pet therapy, ecotherapy, green exercise activities as a treatment option, care farming, wilderness therapy and others. Although there is much diversity under the broader umbrella of ‘green care’, the common linking ethos is essentially to use nature to produce health, social or educational benefits. Green care has great potential to reduce the costs of public health in the UK by enabling healthier communities.
Sustainable and Ecological Agriculture
Despite several decades of remarkable agricultural progress, the world still faces a massive food security challenge, with an estimated 790 million people lacking adequate access to food. Most agree that food production will have to increase in the coming years, and that this will have to come from existing farmland. But solving the persistent hunger problem is not simply a matter of developing new agricultural technologies. Most hungry consumers are poor, and so simply do not have the money to buy the food they need. Equally, poor producers cannot afford expensive technologies. They will have to find solutions largely based on locally-available natural, social and human resources. The key questions are, therefore, to what extent can agricultural systems become more productive whilst not causing harm to the environment, and do these offer any new hope for the hungry?
In our research, we examined the extent to which farmers have improved food production in recent years with low-cost, locally-available and environmentally-sensitive practices and technologies. We analysed by survey during 1999-2000 208 projects in 52 developing countries, in which 8.98 million farmers have adopted these practices and technologies on 28.92 million hectares, representing 3.0% of the 960 million hectares of arable and permanent crops in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
We found improvements in food production occurring through one or more of four mechanisms: i) intensification of a single component of farm system; ii) addition of a new productive element to a farm system; iii) better use of water and land, so increasing cropping intensity); iv) improvements in per hectare yields of staples through introduction of new regenerative elements into farm systems and new locally-appropriate crop varieties and animal breeds. The 89 projects with reliable yield data show an average per project increase in per hectare food production of 93%.
There are several key practices and technologies that have led to these increases: increased water use efficiency, improvements to soil health and fertility, pest control using biodiversity services with minimal or zero-pesticide use, and social organization for collective action. This research reveals promising advances in the adoption of practices and technologies that are likely to be more sustainable, with substantial benefits for the rural poor. With explicit support through national policy reforms, better markets, and more integrated and cross-disciplinary approaches to science, these improvements in food security could spread to much larger numbers of farmers and rural people in the coming decades.
Several things are now clear with respect to sustainable agriculture:
- The technologies and social processes for local level agro-ecological improvements are well-tested and established;
- The social and institutional conditions for spread are less well-known, but have been established in several contexts (in particular social groups at local level and novel partnerships between external agencies;
- The political conditions for the emergence of supportive policies are the least established, with only a very few examples of real progress