Having heritage sites in your neighbourhood and visiting heritage improves mental health

Published: 30 March 2023

This blog discusses findings from new research with Historic England.

Published 30th March 2023

By Laura Macdonald, Research Associate with the Places and Health programme.

Population health research has paid much attention to the health benefits of exposure to natural environments. Regular contact with green space, is seen to be protective of our physical health, mental health and wellbeing. A much smaller evidence base suggests that visiting heritage, such as historic buildings, monuments, parks and gardens, may offer similar health benefits. Heritage engagement has been associated with stress reduction, improved life satisfaction, and improvements in mental health, however, despite these benefits, people living in more deprived neighbourhoods are less likely to visit heritage. One reason for this could be poorer geographic exposure in poorer areas, by exposure we mean the proximity, or local availability, of heritage sites.

Our research

In our recently published paper in BMJ Open, we investigated whether geographic availability of heritage varied across neighbourhoods with differing levels of income deprivation, in England. Additionally, we investigated whether greater heritage availability was associated with a higher likelihood of visiting a heritage site and associated with better mental health.

What did we do?

We obtained data on the location of heritage sites, including listed buildings, scheduled monuments and historic parks and gardens from our Historic England collaborators. We used a Geographic Information System to map heritage sites, and created measures to capture heritage geographic availability. We linked data on the heritage environment with data on income deprivation scores, at small area level, that is, Lower Super Output Area (LSOA) level. We compared densities of heritage sites per 1000 population, and per square kilometre (km²) of land, across areas of varying income deprivation.

City of Bath from the air

We used existing data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS), which included detailed participant information of 30,431 adults, such as age, sex, health conditions, individual LSOA of residence etc. Data also included whether survey participants had visited a heritage site in the past year, and a measure of their mental health, in terms of general psychological distress. We joined the area measures of heritage to the UKHLS survey data via the individual LSOA. We explored potential associations between heritage availability and visits to heritage, and between heritage availability and psychological distress.

What did we find?

We found that 59.9% of survey participants had at least one heritage site within their LSOA neighbourhood, and although 61% had visited heritage in the past year, people living in poorer areas were less likely to have visited heritage than those in less deprived areas. We found that availability of heritage sites varied by area income deprivation; the most deprived areas had fewer sites per population than the least deprived. Neighbourhood heritage availability was associated with visits to heritage; however, the physical presence of neighbourhood heritage, on its own, was not associated with residents’ mental health. The combination of having heritage present in the neighbourhood and visiting heritage, was associated with better mental health. 

What are the policy implications of our findings?  

Our findings indicate that both heritage availability, within home neighbourhoods, and engaging with heritage through visiting are key. There is much to be gained from improving the structure of exposure; addressing inequalities in heritage exposure could be seen as part of a pathway to improve societal mental health. Ways to increase exposure within areas with fewer heritage sites could include:

  • better options for public transport, for example, subsidised transport to areas with more heritage sites
  • increasing heritage engagement opportunities must consider socio-cultural factors, for example, addressing potentially lower levels of interest among those within more deprived areas
  • heritage organisations could expand public outreach activities to neighbourhoods with lower exposure, or with lower levels of heritage awareness, and compensate for fewer heritage assets in deprived areas, through increased awareness of what heritage is Such schemes could promote local heritage as ‘special’ and of value to local areas, to improve heritage engagement, and ultimately provide benefits to mental health.

What’s next?

We are interested in exploring the distribution of heritage sites across areas of varying deprivation within Scotland, and using data from the SPACES study, to explore children’s neighbourhood access to heritage, whether they visit heritage, and how heritage may influence their health and well-being.

Is spatial exposure to heritage associated with visits to heritage and to mental health? A cross-sectional study using data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS) is published in BMJ Open. 

First published: 30 March 2023

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