Rural opportunities and Green Care

Green Care? Rural opportunities from fertilisers? No. Green Care means making use of the natural environment to enhance people’s wellbeing. The action may be preventive or rehabilitating. It is only recently that we have started to understand the true value of wellbeing generated by nature.

Scientifically proven wellbeing from nature

Outdoor activities and interaction with animals offer excellent opportunities to maintain and enhance physical fitness. Walking on a forest path improves balance control, and the uneven surface boosts the mobility needed by many people who suffer from back pains. The body benefits from the influx of oxygen and there is sunlight even on cloudy days, both important for both physical and mental wellbeing. The quality of sleep improves as well.

Natural environments are both relaxing and invigorating as they allow us to calmly listen to and process our inner feelings. A twenty-minute walk in a forest has been shown to lower blood pressure, and just five minutes is enough to raise the mood. According to a British study, mild mental health problems are 50% less common among people who often engage in outdoor activities. Humans were originally designed for natural environments. We may have lost touch with it in our daily lines, but our body and soul still remember.

Nature in rehabilitation

The use of natural environments for the actual rehabilitation work is growing. In many countries natural and farming environments are used in mental health and social work, drug rehabilitation, and caring for the elderly. The activity is based on nature-oriented methods, with the impacts on wellbeing generated through the revitalising, activating and communal aspects of the natural environment.

In many countries natural and farming environments are used in mental health and social work, drug rehabilitation, and caring for the elderly.

Daytime activities on a farm offer something sensible and important to do for persons with intellectual disabilities or old people with memory disabling diseases. Animals help people learn and function in varying social situations as non-criticising friends to share our daily chores with. The Netherlands and Norway are pioneers in nature-based rehabilitation. Green Care is an established practice in the public care, rehabilitation and education systems, and there are hundreds of enterprises in this field.

Why not in Finland, too?

Why shouldn’t we also have this in Finland? Especially as we are one of the most forest-dominated and rural countries in Europe. In Finland systematic development of these activities did not get started until well into the 2000s. Unfortunately our thinking may over-idolise efficiency and technologies, which does not always go hand in hand with taking advantage of the opportunities for wellbeing offered by natural environments.

The current trend towards even more densely built-up urban areas may overlook green areas and spaces in search for higher efficiency, and nearby outdoor recreation areas are shrinking as priority is given to building, with no consideration for the impacts on wellbeing. If a densely built urban environment is so pleasant, why are the roads blocked especially at summer weekends as people head from towns and cities to their holiday homes and the countryside? Not everybody has this option, for one reason or another. And this is what really costs a lot, in both humane and economic terms.

Could this then mean opportunities for the countryside? Even if, in a way, this is reinventing something that was already there, entrepreneurship in the field is new for us. Various operators are using certain elements of Green Care in their activities, but doing this in a systematic and target-oriented way is only getting started. Green Care activities in Finland also encompass what we call Green Empowerment, meaning the preventive occupational welfare work and target-oriented recreation and wellness activities. Most of these customers come from the private sector. Green Care proper means the use of nature for rehabilitation. These customers typically have some kind of a care or rehabilitation plan, also purchased by public service providers.

Multiple opportunities for business

For entrepreneurs this offers multiple opportunities. A farm, for example, may diversify its activities by occupational welfare activities, subsidised holidays, or even more strongly by specialising in green care activities as part of rural tourism. An entrepreneur offering trips to nature may specialise in nature-assisted therapy or provide nature-based pedagogic services or customised, target-oriented nature trips to private individuals - with due account for the special strengths and competence of each enterprise, of course.

Like in any other business, it is important for the service to meet the customers’ needs. As a guarantee for high quality, a national Green Care quality label was introduced in the beginning of 2017, telling the customers that the services provided by the company meet the quality requirements for Green Care. Green Care is an umbrella term that comprises various types of activities, environments and target groups. Whether there are real treasures to be found for the countryside remains to be seen.

  • Anne
    Matilainen, Anne

    Projektipäällikkö, Helsingin yliopiston Ruralia-instituutti

    Hennes specialområden är mångbruk av skog, naturföretagande, samarbete mellan skogsägare och företagare samt Green Care. Hon arbetar också som regional samordnare i det landsomfattande Green Care-samordningsprojektet i Västra och Inre Finland.

    She specialises in multiple use of forests, entrepreneurship based on the natural environment, cooperation between forest owners and entrepreneurs, and Green Care. She is also the coordinator for Western and Central Finland in the national Green Care coordination project.