UK (University of Kent) Urban farming and mental health – getting out in nature can boost our wellbeing and food sustainability

Urban farming and mental health – getting out in nature can boost our wellbeing and food sustainability

Katherine Moss

18 May 2023

Volunteers in the Kent Community Oasis Garden

Estimates suggest that as many 1 in 6 adults experience a ‘common mental disorder’ such as depression or anxiety. Covid 19 only exacerbated this situation, and we need new and innovative tools to tackle what is fast becoming a crisis. One of these is green care – the provision of health and social services via contact with nature. Not only is there increasing evidence that this is an effective non-medical approach to improve mental health related conditions, but it also has added benefits around food security and community.

Silvio Caputo, Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture and expert in urban planning and agriculture explains: ‘We have seen an increase in the number of community gardens offering horticultural therapy, sometimes through NHS social prescribing referrals, combining mental health therapy to food production and the broader issue of food security. These gardens are increasingly becoming community hubs providing social and ecological services and increasing local resilience in multiple ways and policies to incentivise this type of community-based support should be implemented.

‘Importantly, with community gardens performing diverse activities and functions, training for managers and gardeners in the provision of social support, ecological amelioration and food production becomes increasingly important. A recent European study suggests that in the face of substantial social benefits accrued, community gardens can be water and resource intensive when compared to conventional agriculture. With urban farming on the rise, the environmental efficiency of this practice must step up.’

To approach to both mental health through volunteering and green therapy, as well as helping create a more sustainable future, Kent has partnered with East Kent Mind on the Kent Community Oasis Garden (KentCOG) – the charity’s only green therapy project. Debi Adams, from the charity, says: ‘This unique project provides opportunities for students, staff, and community members to ‘get growing’ together. This means volunteers are building the relationship between people and planet, which supports good wellbeing and mental health and provides opportunities to actively engage with climate and environmental positive solutions.

‘This exceptional partnership between the University and East Kent Mind is the cornerstone of COG, bringing an extraordinary collaboration of education, community engagement, sustainability and mental health and wellbeing to one project.

‘We know that spending time in nature in this way not only improves mental health, but also fosters appreciation of nature and belief that individual actions can make a difference to the local environment. Delivering green wellbeing activities in permanent outdoor setting is a distinct feature of KentCOG, not offered anywhere else within EKM service provision.’

Kent student Isabella Sabin-Dawson, volunteers in the KentCOG, and explains how it helps her mental health: ‘Spending the time outside regularly in a nature-friendly space has significantly benefited my mental health. Working on a project where I can visibly see the progress I’ve been making has been great.

‘The combination of taking care of your mental health whilst also getting access to a loving community and fresh organic fruit and vegetables. The volunteers have access to everything that is grown at KentCOG and this has helped students maintain a healthy balanced diet throughout the cost of living crisis, and encourages us to learn new seasonal recipes. The leftover produce is used by the Gulbenkian café on campus in their daily specials, such as beetroot soup.

‘I often feel a real sense of accomplishment whenever I spend time at KentCOG and leave in a much better mood and mindset than when I arrived. Not only do projects like this have a wealth of benefits for mental and physical health, but it helps to build and support a community of people. I hope that more projects will become available and accessible for a greater number of people across the UK.’

As part of The Right to Food initiative and our sustainability commitments, Kent is exploring plans to invest in our growing spaces on campus, turning our Medway and Canterbury into ‘Edible Campuses’, beginning by creating a River of Vegetation that connects KentCOG to the new Jubilee Orchard.