Bulletin: Canals, Health & Wellbeing

Our canals and waterways play an important role in wellbeing, inclusion and future prospects for communities and individuals – and the Society very much endorses this. We will be actively promoting the health benefits in our work with the local community and councils.

By way of background, the National Planning Policy Framework, aimed at promoting healthy communities, makes very clear the importance of planning for shared space and community facilities. It highlights opportunities to improve social interaction and access to both formal and informal recreation along or beside the waterways and  provide a range of outdoor space for sports and recreation, cultural, civic, learning and community activities, as well as supporting and promoting local heritage. The Town and Country Planning Association set up the ‘Developers and Wellbeing’ project in 2017, some of the findings of which are detailed below.

Social inclusion and accessibility

Over the last 20 years, waterways have been both the catalyst and the focus for an immense amount of regeneration and development activity which has acted to build developer and investor confidence, particularly in disadvantaged areas and contributed to social inclusion.

With waterways on many disadvantaged local communities’ doorsteps, they have an important role to play in skills development and youth social action. Learning outside the classroom is proven to tackle social mobility and be of particular help to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, increasing self-esteem, raising levels of attainment and improving mental health and wellbeing.

Health, wellbeing and happiness

Economic prosperity depends on having a healthy and active workforce. Waterways have a significant role to play, particularly in tackling physical inactivity, obesity and reducing stress, especially in the many disadvantaged communities with waterways on their doorstep.

Independent research shows that spending time by the waterways can make you happier and improve life satisfaction, with an equivalent estimated social wellbeing value of £3.8bn per year.

In an article written by Sebastien Chastin and Michail Georgiou published this year in The Conversation, the authors state that people are more likely to experience mental health disorders in areas with greater population density. Overcrowding, pollution, urban violence and less social support may all be contributing factors, and this is becoming more of a challenge as more people around the world move into towns and cities.

Natural settings have long been seen as a potential solution, since many studies have shown that when people are closer to nature they are less stressed, and their mood and general mental health improve. There has been much research into using therapeutic landscapes in cities to bring the benefits of being in nature to more people. But while plenty of studies have focused on green spaces, researchers are also beginning to look at the health benefits of living near water. So far, studies show that people living near water have a lower risk of premature death, a lower risk of obesity, and generally report better mental health and wellbeing. These blue spaces also reduce the gap between less and more affluent areas in the risk of dying prematurely.

But while being close to water enhances people’s wellbeing, no research has yet shown that it reduces the incidence of mental health disorders. Most studies have also focused on coastal towns rather than cities. Given that even landlocked cities are built around water features like canals, rivers and lakes, Chastin and Georgiou’s research aimed to uncover their health benefits, and how they could be repurposed to improve the mental health of people living in cities.

Mental health connection

The researchers conducted a systematic review and analysis of all the evidence about how blue space positively impacts health. This showed that living closer to and having more blue space within your neighborhood could significantly increase your physical activity levels. Blue spaces were also shown to lower stress and anxiety, while boosting people’s mood and psychological wellbeing. Our findings align with what other studies have found. Researchers studying the effects of blue space delivered through virtual reality have also found that people see it as restorative, fascinating, and preferable to a built-up environment. This shows how technology could be used as a way of studying how being near water affects people.

Creating blue spaces

But if the early evidence points to lots of health benefits from living near water, the problem many cities encounter is finding ways to bring them to residents. During the Victorian era, canals in the UK were tremendously important to the economy. Canals allowed trade to happen and helped workers to move around. There’s still a huge network of these waterways in many UK cities, but very few of them are in use.

Numerous projects in the last few years have sought to regenerate canal networks in the UK, though mainly with a view to improving the local economy creating valuable real estate. But even aside from the potential mental health effects, regenerating these networks can bring other benefits, such as controlling water levelspreventing floods and making cities more resilient to climate change. This is creating a win-win-win that combines economic, environmental and health benefits.

The next step: as mentioned, we will be actively promoting these benefits in our work. In the meantime just go and have a walk along the canal – and relax!