Nature-based social prescribing: possibilities, pitfalls & partnerships in the North East & North Cumbria

Feb 13 2023

This blog was written by Charley McFarlane-Troy & Catherine El Zerbi.

It was drafted as part of the Supporting Children & Families Theme, National Institute for Health Research Applied Research Collaboration for the North East & North Cumbria, Newcastle University.

Our co-produced and interdisciplinary Rooted in Nature research project seeks to understand how nature-based activities may improve the health and wellbeing of young people in Middlesbrough. To do this, we’re focussing on the Rooted in Nature programme led by Middlesbrough & Stockton Mind. Our shared aims are to increase connections between health and nature-based organisations or professionals, and understand how using a Social Prescribing model can increase sustainability of community activity. In this blog, we describe our arts-based approach to workshop facilitation, and briefly present the main themes to emerge.

Our workshop took place on Thursday 29th September 2022 at the Community Hall, Middlesbrough & Stockton Mind and was attended by 40 nature-based practitioners and commissioners from across the region, as well as two young people, and adult clients currently involved in nature-based activities for health.

To keep us all fed and watered on the day, our community partners Barefoot Kitchen provided a delicious breakfast, followed by a wholesome and locally-sourced lunch, which were enjoyed by all.

To begin, our Co-Investigator Emma Howitt (Chief Executive Officer, Middlesbrough & Stockton Mind) welcomed everyone and outlined the background for Rooted in Nature. We then moved on to three brief presentations by Sarah Marrison (Social Prescribing Engagement Manager, VONNE), Aron Simpson (Social Prescribing Link Worker, Middlesbrough & Stockton Mind), and Rooted in Nature researchers Charley & Catherine (Newcastle University). This was followed by a photography activity led by our Co-Investigator Clare Woolhouse (Edge Hill University) which made use of the visual data collected during Rooted in Nature fieldwork observations and walking interviews with practitioners.

Throughout, our artist Anna Geyer (New Possibilities) was producing visual minutes in real-time to increase understanding, communication and engagement.

Visual minutes were created live during the workshop and were available for attendees to consult as they discussed.

Next, our Co-Investigator Sarah Banks (Durham University) did a fantastic job facilitating three rounds of group activities based on set questions, which was followed by feedback from each table. This was accompanied by a hot air balloon exercise which Charley devised to help attendees visualise some of the questions we were asking of them.

Stakeholders imagined the perfect basket of programme ideas to be lifted by a balloon of changes despite the barriers (sandbags) attempting to weigh it down.

We then identified the most commonly occurring themes relating to barriers (sandbags), aspirations (basket) and what’s needed in practical terms to make nature-based aspirations a reality (balloon). This is what emerged.

  1. 1. Barriers

Our attendees mentioned material barriers affected access and engagement with nature-based activities for young people, including being unable to afford transport to reach activities and the equipment required for some activities (e.g. walking boots, waterproofs and sustenance). Our young attendees suggested that a marketing strategy was needed so that nature-based activities appealed to young people, as the assumption is often that nature for health is reserved for older people. Attendees told us that funders often restrict funding to the delivery of nature-based activities, rather than what is needed to support delivery. They added there is a distinct lack of “trickle down” of funding to the third sector, with funding often characterised as a “panacea” or “hail Mary” by nature-based organisations who are inundated with referrals but made to jump through hoops to secure the necessary funding to support these referrals. High-levels of staff turnover and a lack of nature-based practitioners on the ground were mentioned as barriers too, primarily related to short-term funding for nature-based programmes. They also mentioned that young people are let down when a project ends and may be put-off engaging in future.

  1. 2. Aspirations

Our attendees stressed the importance of community development approaches which will help local people to take ownership of green activities to enhance their local environment. To maintain autonomy for nature-based practitioners, they would like to see more community-led collaboration through co-design, co-production and co-delivery. For sustainability, they want more capacity for opportunities for volunteers to be trained to lead activities, which would enable a more varied and permanent range of opportunities to be offered to young people, with a focus on exploration, adventure, discovery and creativity. They would like to see accreditation for practitioners running nature-based programmes, as well as recognition, reward and certificates for the transferable knowledge and skills that young people acquire from participating in nature-based activities.

  1. 3. What is needed for it to happen?

Commonly reported was the need for long-term, strategic and sustainable funding that invests in local knowledge and produces legacies for nature-based programmes. In terms of scaling-up, our attendees told us they want to see nature-based programmes designed flexibly and responsive to individual needs, rather than a one-size fits all approach. They suggested new models of collaboration are required so different nature-based groups and organisations know how best to work together. Building trust between groups and organisations is required (yet takes time) as open and transparent relationships across organisations are needed to make nature-based programmes sustainable. Attendees said they would like to showcase different nature-based activities via local exhibitions to raise awareness of such opportunities for local people to get involved.

Next steps

Our attendees would like to see green ‘community hubs’ developed across the North East & North Cumbria, together with a consortium designed to link communities across the region together. This consortium would act as one point of contact where members can network and collaborate to build capacity and capabilities, as well as share information and knowledge on what works best and how.

As applied health researchers, it will be our job to help make this happen.