Have you ever found yourself in an internet wormhole on the benefits of ice baths? Or the latest “superfood”? Or how many hours of sleep is now seen as optimum? In a digital world where endless health information is at our fingertips – and social media invents a new health fad every minute – it’s easy to perceive our own health as something only dictated by our own life choices. Something we can control on an individual level.

But our health is not just determined by our lifestyle (and genetics), it’s also highly dependent on the environment we live in: on the quality of the air, water, and food we consume. The natural environments that form a backdrop to our lives are not just scenery: they provide the fundamental “ecosystem services” that keep us alive and well.

When you consider that 40% of the world’s usable land is now degraded, this paints an alarming picture for human health. As more of the world’s ecosystems become degraded, our own (human) health is increasingly at risk. To ensure humans can lead long, healthy lives and communities can flourish, we need to live in environments that are flourishing too – and this means protecting, restoring and regenerating the world’s landscapes.

Keep reading to find out why landscape restoration is key to ensuring human health for generations to come…

Ensuring clean air for all

Landscape restoration can help to ensure clean air for all in a world currently threatened by – what scientists call – a “global health catastrophe” as a result of air pollution. The World Air Quality Report found that more than 90% of the world’s countries breach the safe levels of PM2.5 (fine particle matter). Breathing in fine particles leads to heart and lung disease, high blood pressure, and increased asthma risk. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that ambient (outdoor) air pollution causes 4.2 million premature deaths globally.

The culprits? Energy consumption is the principle source of fine particle matter, while road transport accounts for 20% of EU Greenhouse Gas emissions. And agriculture is the main source of ammonia and methane emissions. This is due to chemical-intensive farming practices that rely on pesticides and fertilisers, releasing a cocktail of harmful chemicals into the environment. Next to the chemicals applied to farms, land-use change is associated with large-scale wildfires that can have an intercontinental impact: in 2015, massive forest and peat fires in Indonesia released a toxic haze that impacted neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia.

Restoration practices directly combat air pollution. Studies of green spaces in urban areas highlights how vegetation protects people from air pollution. Green interventions filter air and remove fine particles, acting as barriers but also sources of clean filtered air. Research in New Zealand even demonstrates that children living in areas with increased vegetation diversity were less likely to develop respiratory problems like asthma. Increasing the number of diverse and green areas through restoring degraded areas is therefore a critical tool in mitigating air pollution and supporting human health.

Safeguarding water into the future

Revitatlising wetlands, restoring river ways, constructing water harvesting earthworks across semi-arid landscapes are all crucial components of landscape restoration. These actions benefit biodiversity and are fundamental to supporting human health. Because, while water is our most precious resource, water supplies face numerous pressures. A study by the British fishing community found that 83% of English rivers contain high-levels of pollution caused by sewage and agricultural waste. While the European Environmental Agency (EEA) indicates that over half of Europe’s waters do not meet a good ecological status.

Groundwater supplies are also severely impacted. Over-exploitation from agriculture leaves them vulnerable, while excessive application of chemicals – pesticides, herbicides and fertlisers – leads to contamination. Nitrate pollution, which primarily comes from fertilisers, is one of the most common groundwater contaminants and makes water unsuitable as drinking water due to severe risks of causing cancer and birth defects. A global diagnosis of nitrate pollution found that the presence of nitrates in groundwater is continuously growing worldwide and urgent measures are required to avoid degradation of water bodies.

The most effective way to tackle water pollution is from the source. Restoration approaches that restore freshwater ecosystems to ecological functionality are crucial for purifying water and recharging groundwater supplies. Added benefits of restoring freshwater ecosystems are important services like flood protection, carbon sequestration and biodiversity habitat creation. Meanwhile transitioning to farming practices that limit the water-use while eliminating harmful chemicals is key to ensuring sustainable access to healthy groundwater supplies.

Human gut health starts in the soil

The earth beneath our feet is a teeming ecosystem of soil life: in just one teaspoon of soil, there are more microorganisms than there are people on the planet. Soil is not just the bedrock of agricultural, but also our health. Research demonstrates a strong relationship between soil microbiome and the human intestinal microbiome. Reduced contact with soil through an increasingly urbanised society combined with a loss of soil biodiversity, correlates with decreased human gut health: home to 70% of our immune system. The use of agrochemicals and intensive soil management strategies therefore directly impacts human health.

The good news is – we know how to rebuild soil health, and thus, human health. Regenerative agricultural practices like reducing tillage, cover cropping, intercropping and agroforestry, promote biodiversity, stimulating soil life. Studies also show that regenerative practices produce healthier, more nutrient dense foods. According to David Montgomery, lead author of one such study, “across the board we found these regenerative practices imbue crops with more anti-inflammatory compounds and antioxidants.”

Making communities resilient in the face of climate risk

The landslides in Italy, the terrible floods in Belgium in 2021, the ongoing and unprecedented drought across the Amazon region, are just a handful of the deadly climate-related events that have been impacting people in the recent years. In the 2023 report of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change, the world’s leading Doctors say it is imperative for a health-centred response to climate change. “If nothing else will drive the message home about the present threat that climate change poses to our global society, this should,” Lachlan McIver, a Doctors Without Borders physician told the Washington Post. “Your health, my health, the health of our parents and our children are at stake.”

By creating healthy ecosystems with thriving biodiversity, we help to ensure our natural environments are more resilient to upcoming climate risks. Regenerating barren hillsides with diverse native species prevents landslides. Creating floodplains, wetlands, and rewilding sections of rivers prevents flooding while restoring freshwater ecosystems. Halting deforestation and replanting degraded areas can repair the water cycle and generate rain. In turn, these interventions protect people and mitigate the health risks of natural disasters and extreme weather events driven by climate change.

Feeling sick? Ask your Doctor for a Nature Prescription

From the Scotland to the United States, Doctors are now giving their patients Nature Prescriptions. This is part of a more holistic approach to patient wellbeing. Trails of Nature Prescriptions in Scotland resulted in 74% patients saying they benefited from their prescription. Some of the ideas offered in the Nature Prescription are: “Open your window and listen to the sound of rain”, “Volunteer at a community garden”, “Watch crows play.” The science backs it up. Nature exposure is associated with a plethora of positive health impacts from improved cognitive functioning, to blood pressure, brain activity, mental health, and sleep. Dr William Bird, a British GP and nature advocate says, “Nature can be seen as a great outpatient department whose therapeutic value is yet to be fully realised.”

Providing more, and better access to, natural spaces is crucial for giving people the opportunity to get outside, create meaningful nature connection and boost their health and well-being. And if people want to get more hands on, they can join community gardens, tree planting events, and river restoration clubs. So, by contributing to making landscape healthier, people benefit their own health while regenerating their environment.

Investing in landscape restoration is investing in human health

Understanding landscape restoration as a health benefit provides a common element that everyone can get behind. It creates a compelling incentive for communities, policymakers, and individuals alike to prioritise and actively engage in the restoring healthy environmental systems. Because it underscores an undeniable truth: by cultivating the health of the landscapes we are part of, we simultaneously nurture our own health. By investing in the health of our soils, improving the quality of our water systems, and enhancing the air we breathe, we directly contribute to human well-being.

As we shift our perspective to see the environment not as a distant entity but as an intimate and essential part of our lives, the efforts to restore and maintain it become as instinctive as caring for our own bodies. By embracing this holistic approach, we lay the groundwork for a sustainable and thriving existence, where the vitality of our environment mirrors our own, and every step towards a healthier planet is a step towards a healthier humanity.