When we say that biodiversity is important, and that contact with nature is good for our mental and physical health, we are often expressing an intuitive sense that ‘it just must be’.
A recently published study provides further evidence of the importance of biodiversity and the unexpected impacts of biodiversity loss. Researchers in Finland have found that the global trend of increased allergies and chronic inflammatory diseases amongst urban populations may be linked to living in biodiversity-poor places.
According to the paper, reduced contact with nature and biodiversity has a negative impact on “the human commensal microbiota and its immunomodulatory capacity”. Or more straightforwardly, the microbiotic biodiversity living on ones skin, which affects disposition to allergies and to autoimmune diseases, is poorer in areas of low biodiversity, and where people don’t come in sufficient contact with nature.
As urban areas lose their green spaces and the wildlife they support, and as our surroundings become more obsessively hygienic, we are reducing our chances – and more particularly the chances of our children – to develop immunity to a range of chronic conditions.
It’s really just a more sophisticated version of granny’s “a bit of dirt never harmed anyone”, or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, but the findings of the Finnish researchers has significant implications for the design of our urban areas and its impact on public health. We are living in an increasingly urban world in which an greater proportion of the population is likely to suffer from chronic illness. Aside for any human cost, there is a serious financial cost on health services and to the economy more widely.
Research shows trees and green space can be important for improving and maintaining air quality and reducing the risk of chronic lung conditions; evidence supports contact with nature as a way of helping with mental health; green spaces near to where we live encourage activity and improve public health; and now we know the environment in which we live and our contact with nature is important in developing our immunity…. but mostly we just know our granny was right.
This is just one more bit of evidence, if more were needed, of the importance of biodiversity where we live. Of course conserving rainforest, tigers, rhino, the Alaskan wilderness and our own natural habitats and iconic species is critically important, but we can fixate on the wild and remote and spectacular, at a cost to the ordinary and the familiar in the places where we live. Biodiversity isn’t just something ‘out there’, it should be something here. It doesn’t have to be rare or threatened or specialist or spectacular to be important.
We need to plan green space and biodiversity back into urban areas. We need to make it accessible, not just as a place to visit but as spaces we live in and move through in the course of our everyday lives; we need to celebrate the ordinary and the familiar as well as the rare and strange. And let some of it at least, be wild and unruly. We need street trees, parks, playing fields and lawns, but we also need new meadows, ponds and woods in and around villages towns and cities.
Mike Townsend, Communications and Evidence Adviser