Exposure potential of rural versus urban inland waters for equitably improving population health and wellbeing


Inland waters (in both natural and urban environments) span a spectrum of waterbody types from gentle flowing headwaters, canals and lakes through to engineered urban water features and low lying estuaries. These diverse ‘blue spaces’ represent an interconnected resource for nature-based health interventions, with UK freshwaters offering a range of potential public health benefits. Ecologically healthy and biodiverse inland waters promote tourism, support family activities and provide social cohesion in local communities. However, relative to their marine counterparts, rural and urban inland waters in the UK are often overlooked in terms of their wider socio-economic significance and the value of social and mental health benefits of access to inland waters are often hidden, or unaccounted for, relative to the physical benefits. This reinforces the critical need to assess the role of inland blue space (i.e. water bodies embedded in the landscape) in promoting population health and wellbeing, encouraging active recreation and generally increasing levels of social activity. The term ‘blue-health’ recognises psychological and stress recovery benefits that water can provide, and not just the physical benefits of recreation in water environments; however, while the concept of waterscapes as therapeutic landscapes is gaining increased momentum and is attracting interdisciplinary attention, large areas of the UK’s inland aquatic environment represent an under-utilised natural capital asset for the promotion and improvement of population health. This studentship will investigate the ways in which different types of inland blue space can influence perceived health and wellbeing and examine the policies and processes that hinder or promote use of, and access to, inland blue space.

Research objectives: This studentship will use a combined field and modelling approach to further our understanding of exposure potential of rural versus urban inland waters for equitably improving population health and wellbeing. The student will address the following research objectives:

1. Determine how perceptions of health and wellbeing (dis)benefits associated with contrasting inland water typologies vary across a rural-urban continuum.

2. Use a range of GIS modelling approaches to evaluate inland blue space characteristics of rural versus urban populated areas and their potential impact on health and health inequalities.

3. Exploit Big Data via social media tags (e.g. via Flickr, Twitter) to gain novel insight into blue space usage and inland water-health linkages.

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Inland blue space


The health and wellbeing promoting potential of inland blue space typologies remains largely unexplored. Evidence suggests that the presence of a variety of different types of water body are preferred in landscapes but how each waterbody typology interacts with blue-health pathways and affects health promotion is more uncertain. What are the mechanisms through which inland blue-health benefits arise? Does the perceived “dosage” of exposure for health benefits vary between different categories of inland blue space (rivers, lakes, urban ponds, canals, wetlands)? The student will deploy a combination of quantitative and qualitative research methods to enable data capture of blue-health benefits associated with inland water environments across both rural and urban communities.

The studentship will capitalise on geospatial modelling approaches to examine barriers to accessing inland blue spaces and to explore whether inland blue spaces represent a source of health inequality if different types of waterbodies are deemed an important population health resource and are not distributed equitably (in terms of quality) across communities. An evaluation of future potential impacts on blue space access, quality and health-promoting opportunities will be undertaken. Future landscape/climate change will likely influence rural and urban waters in different ways, both in terms of blue space quantity and quality. The studentship will use climate change projections to derive scenarios of future blue space usage and access and consider how different “catchment futures” might relate to health inequalities. Visibility modelling of blue space in rural versus urban environments will also be used as part of the geospatial approach to data capture.

Finally, the student will use novel approaches to data mining associated with social media platforms (posts and tags) to evaluate (spatially and temporally) how people use spaces near inland water bodies. Such an approach can help to deliver an innovative evidence base to underpin solutions for promoting population level health and wellbeing.

This project also includes a collaboration with Dr Phil Bartie, School of Mathematical & Computer Sciences, Heriot-Watt University.

Project Timeline

Year 1

In the first 4 months of the studentship you will develop a critical review of the literature. After engaging with the literature you will begin to learn key skills for survey design and participate in key training opportunities. You will deploy a large scale survey on perceived health and wellbeing benefits of inland blue space usage.

Year 2

In year 2 you will begin to develop GIS modelling skills. This will be complemented with the development of a series of landscape/climate change scenarios and their implications for water quality/quantity of different inland blue spaces (rural and urban). You will be encouraged to begin to draft chapters as you progress.

Year 3

In addition to writing up aspects of the research undertaken so far you will investigate the impact of future landscape/climate change scenarios on public perception of the health and wellbeing (dis)benefits. You will also begin the exploration of social media tags and posts to evaluate how (spatially and temporally) people use spaces near inland waterbodies across the UK.

Year 3.5

The final 6 months will be used to interpret the outputs from the scenario modelling and social media mining and to finalise the thesis with respect to writing up and refining further the drafts of chapters completed thus far.

& Skills

This studentship will provide a platform to build an interdisciplinary research career in environment and health, with a focus on nature-based health interventions. The studentship will broaden the scope of the applicant’s skills base by providing specialist training in a range of quantitative and qualitative research methods. Extensive skill development in survey design will be complemented with exposure to GIS modelling methodologies including writing computer code.

References & further reading

Gascon, M., Zijlema, W., Vert, C., White, M.P. and Nieuwenhuijsen, M.J., 2017. Outdoor blue spaces, human health and well-being: a systematic review of quantitative studies. International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, 220, 1207-1221.

Miller D, Roe J, Brown C, Morris S, Morrice J & Ward Thomson C. (2012). Blue health: water, health and wellbeing. Centre of Expertise for Waters, James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen. Available online at: www.crew.ac.uk/publications

Foley R. & Kistemann T, (2015). Blue space geographies: Enabling health in place. Health & Place, 35,157-165.

Further Information

For informal enquires: Dr David Oliver (david.oliver@stir.ac.uk tel: 01786 467846)

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