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HPHP - from the beginning

15 Aug 2020Topics: | Comments

Professor Mardie Townsend is the Associate Dean (International and Development) of the Faculty of Health, Medicine, Nursing and Behavioural Sciences at Deakin University, Australia. She has collaborated with Parks Victoria from 2000 to establish and develop Healthy Parks Healthy People.

When I began working with Parks Victoria in 2000, I didn’t realise how important the work we were doing on Healthy Parks, Healthy People would become. It all began in a very ad hoc way, when Peter Brown (then a Deakin University staff member) was discussing with Parks Victoria’s Alex Holt the need for evidence to back-up the new PV slogan, ‘Healthy Parks, Healthy People’. Peter approached Lawry St Leger, the Dean of the Health Faculty at Deakin, and the rest is history, as the saying goes. We - my team at Deakin and Parks Victoria - have now been working together for 10 years.

But I guess that I began thinking about the connections between health and nature well before that. In the early 1990s, my PhD research into the factors motivating and influencing the greening of the manufacturing industry in Australia highlighted the fact that environmental health issues were both a motivating force and an outcome associated with ‘green’ companies. As well, my husband and I had built a passive solar, mudbrick house in rural Victoria on previously degraded farmland, which we restored to health by planting over 1,000 trees. In the process, we discovered that our passion for the environment had spin-off benefits for our own wellbeing. Now our country retreat has become a haven from the pressures of city life, not just for us but also for many friends and family who go there to unwind.

In the process of undertaking research with PV, I have had the privilege to get to know many wonderful researchers around the world, and to share ideas, projects, presentations and the occasional glass of wine! For example, I had the privilege of spending time with Professor Jules Pretty and his team at the University of Essex, UK and learning about the research they were to doing to demonstrate the benefits of exercising in the natural environment rather than in indoor settings. Similarly, I have spent time with Steve Coleman and his team at Washington Parks and People. They work to restore parks and natural environments in some of the most deprived areas of Washington DC to enable the residents of those areas to have access to safe, good quality open spaces – something most of us take for granted. In 2007 and 2008, I worked with Dr Liz O’Brien from Forest Research in the UK to explore the benefits of environmental volunteering in northern England and southern Scotland. We interviewed so many delightful volunteers, and found that it was not just the environments that benefitted from their work but themselves and their communities.

When we began this work, it was sometimes dismissed as ‘soft’, but there is a growing recognition of the importance of nature contact for human health and wellbeing. I frequently find myself invited to address both health sector organisations and environmental groups. Whereas when we began doing this research, we were like a lone voice clambering to be heard above the din of the medical approach to health, now this area has developed a momentum of its own. Increasingly, HPHP-style cross-sectoral projects are popping up both in Australia and internationally, sometimes initiated by the environment sector and at other times coming from the health sector. It’s exciting to see, and really confirms for me the ‘rightness’ of what we began back in 2000.


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