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People, places and public health : evaluating the benefits of civic environmentalism in an urban local government context
conference contributionposted on 2004-01-01, 00:00 authored by Mardie TownsendMardie Townsend
Recent political, economic and social trends pose threats to the sustainability both of ecosystems and of human health. Australia’s environmental management record is poor, and while by international standards Australians enjoy good health, this is variable (AIHW, 2000). Within developed nations, heart disease, depression, alcohol dependence and stroke are major health issues (Mathers et al. 2002). In Australia, mental disorder is the number one contributor to the disease burden (Vos & Mathers 2000). Recent research has highlighted the role of social capital as a key determinant of health (Kawachi et al., 1997). Despite this, Putnam (1995) observes that social connectedness and civic engagement are in decline. People have less time for leisure and for volunteering, as many juggle paid work and caring for children. Anecdotal evidence suggests that engagement in civic environmentalism has human health benefits, relating to a combination of exposure to natural environments and increased social capital (Maller, Brown, Townsend & St. Leger, 2002). This link is supported by Furnass (1996) who defines well-being as including: satisfactory human relationships, meaningful occupation, opportunities for contact with nature, creative expression, and making a positive contribution to human society. Research conducted by Deakin University confirms the efficacy of linking people and places through civic environmentalism for addressing both ecosystem sustainability and human health and wellbeing. The research has included a pilot study to explore the human health benefits of membership of a local parkland ‘Friends’ group, and a more detailed follow-up study. The aims of the pilot study included:- To identify the range of motivations for joining the Friends group;- To document members’ perceptions of the benefits gained from membership of the group;- To assess the potential for Friends groups to be used as an ‘upstream’ health promotion measure.Face-to-face interviews were conducted with eleven members of a ‘Friends’ group in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. Data was analysed thematically and key findings included:- Motivations: environmental; social; and pragmatic.- General benefits: community belonging; personal satisfaction; learning opportunities; physical activity; and better environment.- Health benefits: physical health; mental health; and social support. There was unanimous support for the use of ‘Friends’ groups as a tool for health promotion.The follow-up study, in the western suburbs of Melbourne, expanded on the pilot study by measuring the group’s social capital and by collecting self-report data on levels of health service usage. Data was collected through face-to-face interviews and a questionnaire. The findings were similar to the pilot study in relation to the motivations, benefits and the health promotion potential of such groups. However, health service usage data highlighted an apparent anomaly: while respondents perceived significant health benefits, some were nevertheless utilising health services at a relatively high level. This poses some questions requiring further exploration: Is this due to the poorer baseline health of the high health service usage members compared with their fellow members? Does involvement in the group offer health benefits that enable people who would otherwise be too unhealthy to participate in community groups to continue such involvement?If this is the case, then we may do well to look to locally-based mechanisms for promoting ecological sustainability as a tool also for promoting human health. Instead of prescribing a pill, connecting people and places through engagement with a local friends group may address our health problems at the same time as addressing local environmental problems.