Measuring the value of outdoor experiences

Measuring the value of outdoor experiences is about much more than dollars and cents. At its core, it is about well-being, says Dr Paul Blaschke.

As an environmental consultant and course convenor at the University of Otago’s Wellington School of Medicine, Dr Blaschke has made a significant contribution to our understanding of the physical and mental benefits of outdoor recreation.

He says quantitative research is a good starting point, but measuring the “true value” of outdoor experiences requires qualitative input.

“If you’ve done some of the first part in reviewing the available research, another step is to explore the stories of people. Find out about their experience, and over time you might be able to trace and define the personal benefits of their outdoor experiences.”

Dr Blaschke was the primary author of the Department of Conservation’s 2013 publication Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Conservation in New Zealand. That report examined how natural spaces reduce stress and improve physical capability, how social capital is created through group activities, and how contact with nature also has artistic and cultural benefits.

In economic terms, the benefits of physical activity greatly offset the cost of providing and conserving outdoor spaces for recreation. Dr Blaschke points to a 2013 study done by Market Economics and titled The Costs of Physical Inactivity, which calculated the economic cost of physical inactivity in the Auckland, Wellington and Waikato regions.

The research found people who were not physically active were less healthy, had lower life expectancies, and were poorer because they were ill more often and less able to play an active role in society. The report estimated the total cost of physical inactivity to New Zealand at $1.3 billion dollars.

As New Zealand becomes more urbanised, the cost will rise. It is more vital than ever for people have access to natural spaces in urban settings, Dr Blaschke says.

If nature is not part of people’s everyday lives, they risk ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ – a term coined by author Richard Louv in his writing about the consequences for American children of growing up in urban settings without exposure to nature.

“Humans innately respond to being out in the outdoors and in natural areas. The direct psychological and social risks are that kids are not getting the chance to have these experiences, and so may not be able to later in life,” Dr Blaschke says.

The benefits of ‘around the corner’ scenic reserves and green spaces such as the Wellington Botanic Gardens should also be looked at, he says.

“For a lot of people who go to the Botanic Gardens, their main activity is to walk. Well over half of the visitors are there to walk, and we shouldn’t assume people are only in the formal gardens.”

While the benefits of having urban green spaces are reasonably well documented, Dr Blaschke says New Zealand hasn’t yet undertaken the same sorts of studies looking at the economic health and wellbeing benefits of wilderness areas.

These areas are more difficult to access. For the average city dweller, the nearest national park could be hours away. There are also economic barriers for people going to regional parks, which are mostly visited by older people, or people with relatively high incomes.

The Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Conservation report recommended the Department, local government and other public agencies work together to deliver outdoor experiences.

The Ministry of Health’s ‘Green Prescription’ programme may offer some insight into what’s possible with cross-agency and cross-sector collaboration. This programme enables general practitioners in New Zealand to prescribe a state-subsidised gym programme as treatment for lifestyle diseases.

Dr Blaschke says there are opportunities to extend this sort of programme to partnerships with schools, recreation and volunteer groups, treating mental and physical health issues through prescribing outdoor experiences in natural settings.

However, he says, although the Ministry of Health recently reviewed its National Health Strategy, it is not clear whether scope has been given to support these sorts of partnerships on a broader scale.

Meanwhile, some groups are taking this collaborative approach independently, including the ‘Friends of Owhiro Stream’, which Dr Blaschke helps to run. The group encourages disadvantaged people and people with mental health issues to get involved in its monthly working bees, resulting in positive conservation and mental health outcomes.

“There is a general thought this is a good idea as it brings groups of people together, who wouldn’t usually come into contact with each other,” he says.

*Dr Paul Blaschke is a speaker at the 2016 Outdoors Forum in Wellington.

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