Study details positive impact of canal regeneration on community health

The regeneration of canals and rivers in cities around the world can lead to a decrease in mortality rates in surrounding locations and reducing the gap between deprived and affluent communities, according to new research.

Study details positive impact of canal regeneration on community health

Sebastien Chastin

In a global first, the study led by Glasgow Caledonian University in partnership with Scottish Canals and facilitated by The Data Lab, revealed a faster rate of decline (3% annually) in mortality rates in urban areas close to canals that have undergone major transformation and regeneration, compared to areas further away.

The research, which looked at the impact of regeneration along the Forth & Clyde Canal in North Glasgow – one of Europe’s most deprived areas – highlights the significant physical and mental wellbeing benefits that can be achieved from investing in regenerating urban waterways globally.

The objective of the study was to provide quantitative data that clearly outlines the link between positive public health outcomes and the regeneration, redevelopment and repurposing of canal infrastructure. It also provides the first evidence of its kind that can now be used to shape policy and future investment decisions by canal and river operators, local authorities and governments globally.

Joe FitzPatrick, minister for public health, sport and wellbeing, said: “Access to outdoor space for recreation and physical activity is essential for our health and wellbeing. Scotland’s canals are a great asset and I welcome this research from Glasgow Caledonian University that suggests that canal regeneration in North Glasgow has been associated with a positive impact on health, health inequalities and a long-term reduction in mortality rates for communities living nearby.”

Today, 55% of the global population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 68% by 2050. Waterways are part of the urban fabric of most cities, as can be found in Scotland where 1.5 million people live within 3km of a canal.

Sebastien Chastin, professor in health behaviour dynamics at Glasgow Caledonian University, said: “The world is becoming increasingly urban and this poses serious challenges, not only for our health but also the climate. Most cities in the world are built around water whether this is canals, rivers or coasts and these blue spaces are underused assets for public health.

“Our research focused on North Glasgow as this is one of the areas in Europe with a unique concentration of health issues and health inequalities. Furthermore, 18 years ago the waterways around Glasgow were entirely derelict and so we were able to track their effect on local people, from full disuse to full regeneration over almost two decades.

“This study demonstrates that urban blue spaces when they are developed, invested in and properly managed can have substantial impact on population health around the world as the model is replicable in most cities elsewhere.”

Recognising that urban waterways are underused assets that could have potential positive impacts on climate adaptation, public health, social cohesion and recreation, European policies have called for their rejuvenation. By repurposing and redeveloping the large and dense network of urban waterways across European cities to create attractive environments, it is hoped that recreation and physical activity will be encouraged, fostering social interactions and stimulating business investment and tourism.

The reopening of Scotland’s canals in 2001 and subsequent Scottish Government funding over the last 18 years has been the catalyst to unlocking £1.53m of public and private investment across Scotland, transforming canal corridors and supporting some of Scotland’s most challenged communities.

Catherine Topley, CEO of Scottish Canals, said: “Scotland’s canals have been transformed over the past 20 years thanks to public and private sector investment, creating significant economic value in the form of new houses, jobs and business growth. This exciting new research shows that this investment which has transformed the Forth & Clyde Canal in North Glasgow has also had a major impact on the health and wellbeing of people who live near the water.

“Canal authorities around the world, from the United States to China and Europe, have all been trying to understand the relationship between regenerating our inland waterways and people’s health. We are delighted that Scotland now has the knowledge which can be exported to colleagues internationally, demonstrating once again that Scotland’s canals are at the forefront of innovation.”

With an overriding mission to change how Scotland, and the world, innovates with data through collaboration, The Data Lab, Scotland’s Innovation Centre for Data and AI, funded the research project which was built on a longstanding relationship between Glasgow Caledonian University and Scottish Canals.

Placing a focus on the Forth and Clyde Canal located in North Glasgow, the recent study analysed the effects of living within close proximity to the canal on mortality rates from 2001 to 2017.

During the 17-year period of the canal’s regeneration, which has included the creation of a world-leading Smart Canal urban drainage system as well as the development of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, National Theatre of Scotland and Scottish Opera, residential areas next to the Forth and Clyde experienced a faster decline in mortality rates compared to those located further from the canal.

Following the extensive regeneration project, Forth and Clyde Canal is now a vibrant and emerging destination which boasts world-class cultural and artistic talent, a cutting-edge urban sports hub and an array of major development and investment opportunities. As a catalyst for change, this historic canal will continue to drive the future of prosperity of the area, from Port Dundas and Possil to Maryhill and beyond.

Whilst the findings support the notion that regeneration of disused blue and green assets can have a positive impact on health and health inequalities, the research now needs to be taken to the next level.  Future studies using larger samples of individual-level data, including environmental, socioeconomic and health variables are required to ascertain which specific elements of regeneration are the most effective in promoting positive public health outcomes.

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