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Biodiversity and green space interventions for health and wellbeing in urban populations

Dr Christopher Hassall (SOB), Dr Martin Dallimer (SEE), Dr Ian Kellar (FMH)

Project partner(s): Better Start Bradford (CASE)

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 As of 2008, over 50% of the world’s population lived in urban areas and this is expected to rise to 70% by 2050. However, in most cases cities simply are not equipped to deal with the density of people that are living in urban areas. The design of urban spaces has tended to exclude nature, or at least relegate green space to well-manicured urban parks and playing fields. The result is that noise, air, and water pollution are concentrated close to human habitation while natural spaces are restricted to areas outside urban centres. However, recent work has demonstrated strong evidence for the importance of nature for human health and wellbeing (Hartig et al., 2014). Urban ecosystems provide valuable habitat for a wide range of species (Hill et al., 2016; Baldock et al., 2015), and there is evidence that perceptions of biodiversity enhance wellbeing (Dallimer et al., 2012). Natural spaces also provide a range of more tangible ecosystem services including the mitigation of urban heat islands (Declet-Barreto et al., 2013) and the removal of atmospheric pollutants (Manes et al., 2012). Such ecosystem services have been reinforced by epidemiological studies that have shown that proximity to green space in cities is associated with reduced depressive symptoms in pregnant women (McEachan et al., 2015) and increased foetal birth weights (Dadvand et al., 2014).

Figure 1: (A) A city-scale map of the City of Bradford showing the distribution of key land cover types, and (B) a fine-scale map of a Bradford school site showing the distribution of habitat types at a scale relevant to health-related exposure.

However, despite this rapidly growing body of work, there are a number of key unknowns with respect to the link between green space, health, and wellbeing. Fundamental among these knowledge gaps is the mechanism by which green space acts. While we are beginning to understand the processes by which urban natural spaces contribute to improved environments (cooling, pollutant removal, noise mitigation), but there is limited research into which of those processes contribute to measurable improvements in health-related outcomes. Furthermore, there is a demonstrated variation in the distribution of benefits across different social groups (Dadvand et al., 2014).  While this unevenness of benefit suggests variation in the rate of use of natural urban resources, there has been no demonstration either of the precise mechanism at work or of the interventions that might enhance access to underrepresented groups. Finally, much of the work carried out on the health benefits of green space has been carried out at a scale that is convenient for data analysis (e.g. census-level spatial zones and satellite-derived habitat maps, Figure 1A) but which may bear little resemblance to patterns of individual exposure. Work is needed to investigate individual exposure at finer spatial scales (e.g. Figure 1B) in order to establish mechanisms as described above.


The student will work with supervisors alongside the “Better Start Bradford” project, a £49m Lottery-funded initiative designed to enhance the early lives of children in east Bradford. Central to this project is a series of environmental enhancements which will be co-designed between health researchers and local communities in deprived areas. Some of these are “formal” green spaces such as parks or sports fields which are designed for use, while others are “informal” green spaces such as road verges or street trees. Around 10 such projects will be developed, and the PhD student would have the opportunity to contribute valuable expertise to the study of how the changes impact the health and wellbeing of local residents. To this end, we will combine approaches from the natural (Hassall), social (Dallimer) and psychological (Kellar) sciences to test hypotheses concerning the role of biodiversity in the lives of local residents.

The BSB team can provide access to the experimental sites before and after modification, with the opportunity to influence their design. There are also a series of ancillary projects that can be explored in investigating the design of school grounds or quantifying biodiversity across the landscape at a broader spatial scale. In addition to these datasets, the PhD student will generate novel datasets to test for the effects of passive exposure to, and active engagement with, local biodiversity to address the following broad research questions:

  1. What features (size, connectivity, access) of urban ecosystems are best able to improve health and wellbeing outcomes for Bradford residents? Other studies in Bradford have already demonstrated that increased green space enhances foetal birth weight and reduces depressive symptoms in mothers. However, these studies used coarse, GIS-based measures of green space which do not take into account biodiversity, ecosystem function, or green space quality. The student will provide a nuanced approach to quantifying green space that will help to explain health variations across social and ethnic groups, socioeconomic status, and activity levels.
  2. What is the link between features of urban ecosystems that enhance health outcomes and features that enhance other ecosystem service provision? Ecosystems are multifunctional entities within urban areas, providing recreational opportunities, buffering the urban heat island, and generating less tangible spiritual benefits. However, we do not know what features of the urban environment are most important for these services. Research on urban design and wellbeing will provide much-needed guidance for developers and planners.
  3. Can empirical enhancement of biodiversity result in demonstrable improvements in health? Much work on biodiversity and health has been epidemiological in nature. The BSB project offers a vital opportunity to carry out empirical studies on human health through replicated, controlled interventions at a large scale. Specific areas of interest are whether higher ecological quality of green space increases usage (i.e. a link between biodiversity and behaviour change), and what components of biodiversity mediate that effect.

Potential for high impact outcome

Research linking ecosystems, biodiversity, health, and wellbeing, is high on the agenda due to the growing need to make cities sustainable under projected population growth. Recent high profile funding schemes have highlighted particular gaps in knowledge that have the potential to generate high impact outputs, and this PhD project will explore a number of those gaps in a highly-monitored urban landscape in Bradford. Key outputs will (i) determination of drivers of usage of urban green spaces, (ii) a guide to the design of green space interventions for health focused on the most effective components of natural systems, and (iii) vital downscaling of epidemiological studies to scales relevant to health-related exposure.


The student will be supervised by an interdisciplinary team comprising Dr Christopher Hassall, Dr Martin Dallimer and Dr Ian Kellar. Due to the multiple disciplines represented by the project team, there is a wide variety of opportunities for training in advanced techniques. This includes: (i) biodiversity and taxonomy of urban flora and fauna, (ii) geospatial analysis and GIS-based modelling, (iii) mixed methods research that incorporates quantitative and qualitative social science approaches, (iv) technology-enhanced behavioural data capture using video and photography, and (v) epidemiological data analysis of large datasets. Co-supervision will involve regular meetings between all supervisors and key partners at Better Start Bradford (represented by Dr Rosie McEachan). The student will also spend one or more extended stays at the Better Start Bradford project, working alongside health and urban planning researchers on tasks specific to the project. The successful PhD student will have access to a broad spectrum of training workshops put on by three Faculties (Biological Sciences, Environment, and Medicine and Health) that include an extensive range of training workshops in numerical modelling, through to managing your degree, to preparing for your viva.

Student profile

The breadth of the project, spanning multiple disciplines, means that there is the potential to take on a student from a wide array of backgrounds. The focus of the project will be on the design and assessment of urban green space interventions for health and wellbeing. Different approaches could be taken that focus on ecological, sociological, psychological, or public health techniques. Whatever their background, the student should have a strong interest in developing evidence-based, natural interventions to improve health and wellbeing, and a dedication to impactful research.

CASE Partner

The proposal has been agreed as a CASE project with Better Start Bradford providing extra funding additional to the NERC student stipend. The project builds on recent collaborations between the University of Leeds and health researchers based in Bradford, datasets from which will be available in addition to the data collected for the intervention spaces. The PhD project will provide valuable research support on the evaluation of the green space interventions, facilitating the development of further collaborative projects in the past.


Baldock, K.C.R., Goddard, M.A., Hicks, D.M., Kunin, W.E., Mitschunas, N., Osgathorpe, L.M., Potts, S.G., Robertson, K.M., Scott, A.V., Stone, G.N., Vaughan, I.P. and Memmott, J. 2015. Where is the UK's pollinator biodiversity? The importance of urban areas for flower-visiting insects. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences. 282(1803), p20142849.

Dadvand, P., Wright, J., Martinez, D., Basagaña, X., McEachan, R.R.C., Cirach, M., Gidlow, C.J., de Hoogh, K., Gražulevičienė, R. and Nieuwenhuijsen, M.J. 2014. Inequality, green spaces, and pregnant women: Roles of ethnicity and individual and neighbourhood socioeconomic status. Environment International. 71, pp.101-108.

Dallimer, M., Irvine, K.N., Skinner, A.M.J., Davies, Z.G., Rouquette, J.R., Maltby, L.L., Warren, P.H., Armsworth, P.R. and Gaston, K.J. 2012. Biodiversity and the Feel-Good Factor: Understanding Associations between Self-Reported Human Well-being and Species Richness. Bioscience. 62(1), pp.47-55.

Declet-Barreto, J., Brazel, A.J., Martin, C.A., Chow, W.T.L. and Harlan, S.L. 2013. Creating the park cool island in an inner-city neighborhood: heat mitigation strategy for Phoenix, AZ. Urban Ecosystems. 16(3), pp.617-635.

Hartig, T., Mitchell, R., Vries, S.d. and Frumkin, H. 2014. Nature and Health. Annual Review of Public Health. 35(1), pp.207-228.

Hill, M.J., Biggs, J., Thornhill, I., Briers, R.A., Gledhill, D.G., White, J.C., Wood, P.J. and Hassall, C. 2016. Urban ponds as an aquatic biodiversity resource in modified landscapes. Global Change Biology.

Manes, F., Incerti, G., Salvatori, E., Vitale, M., Ricotta, C. and Costanza, R. 2012. Urban ecosystem services: tree diversity and stability of tropospheric ozone removal. Ecological Applications. 22(1), pp.349-360.

McEachan, R.R.C., Prady, S.L., Smith, G., Fairley, L., Cabieses, B., Gidlow, C., Wright, J., Dadvand, P., van Gent, D. and Nieuwenhuijsen, M.J. 2015. The association between green space and depressive symptoms in pregnant women: moderating roles of socioeconomic status and physical activity. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Biology
  • Ecology
  • Environmental biology
  • Environmental science
  • Health psychology
  • Human geography
  • Physical geography
  • Sociology
  • Zoology