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Stephanie Tierney from the Oxford Social Prescribing Research Network (OXSOP) met with Rodger Caseby from Oxford Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum to learn more about activities he was involved with to support people health and wellbeing. This is following an evaluation conducted by members of OXSOP around social prescribing activities at Harcourt Arboretum.

Tell us about yourself and your role at the arboretum

I am Rodger Caseby and I have an amazing role as Wellbeing Outreach Officer at Oxford Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum. I have a background in science education; I trained as a biologist and then became a teacher. I spent over twenty years teaching in Oxfordshire secondary schools before moving to work in public engagement within the Gardens, Libraries and Museums of the University of Oxford.

I have always valued spending time in nature and I have seen first-hand the positive impact that it has on the wellbeing of others, especially young people. In recent years, I have become increasingly concerned by the disconnection many of us have with the natural world. Some young people have little knowledge about even common plants. I have worked with children who were surprised that nettles could sting or to find blackberries growing on bramble bushes. This disconnection is not only found in young people; many adults are becoming concerned that the richness of nature they experienced in childhood is deteriorating. Yet, I have found that people of all ages still seem to have a fascination with nature and for most only a little prompting is needed to rekindle an active interest in caring for it. I am particularly pleased to be working in a role that reconnects our own health and wellbeing, and that of the natural world, of which we are a part. 

What is happening at the Arboretum to support people’s health and wellbeing?

It’s a really exciting time and lots of things are happening! We are aware of the positive impact of spending time in nature on individual wellbeing. Many people visit the Arboretum to see the amazing plants in the collection but also for the boost in their wellbeing that they gain. We are interested in which of the experiences we offer visitors provide the best positive impact, not just during their time with us but feeding into other aspects of their daily lives. Most of our work is focussed on reconnection with nature. We encourage visitors to engage their senses with the sights, sounds, scents and textures of the natural world, noticing the details of natural beauty, and the scientific wonder of plants and their relationship to other living beings, including us.

We are concerned, however, that for many people in Oxford the Arboretum remains an unexplored gem. We know that many more people could benefit from what the Arboretum has to offer, especially those facing disadvantage or who need support with mental health and wellbeing. 

How do you think the arboretum benefits people?

We know that the vast majority of visitors say that spending time at the Arboretum helps them feel happier and calmer. People comment on the calm they experience compared to the hustle and bustle of everyday life and many visitors appreciate the beauty of the swathes of spring flowers in the meadow, majestic ancient trees in the mature wood and autumn colours in the Acer Glade. We also work with specific groups of visitors, including those who might not otherwise visit, whom we think will benefit particularly. This includes young people, who may be feeling anxious about going to school following the pandemic, and older people who may be feeling socially isolated and lonely. NHS link workers have told us that the Arboretum has a distinct quality from urban parks:

“It’s less urban, it’s a special place to go to...more of a, the park is just something you might walk through...the arboretum is a make a special trip to and then you’ve got all the extra layers...and things to do and can immerse in the whole feel of the place...” 

What is next for the Arboretum in this area?

The report Developing green social prescribing offers: A case study with Harcourt Arboretum, Oxford by Stephanie Tierney and Jordan Gorenberg was extremely useful because it helped us to understand the things that make it difficult for some people to visit, as well as the features that make the Arboretum special. People have told us they enjoy the feeling of ‘getting a little bit lost’ while being sure that the site is safe and well staffed, so they can get assistance if they needed it. But people have also told us that it is difficult to get to the Arboretum and some have been unsure whether it would be an accessible space for them. Some have worried that they might not be welcome. Those who did visit wanted easier paths and more places to sit, especially in groups of friends.

This feedback is helping us plan for the future. The unpopular portable toilets (‘Portaloos’) have gone and we have reopened the ‘proper’ toilets in the lodge. Some paths have already been improved and we will continue to upgrade more. We will build ‘sit spots’ where people can sit together in small groups and revisit at different times of the year to appreciate seasonal changes. In particular, the report has helped us to identify potential activities that link workers believe will encourage their clients to visit: 

  • Arts and crafts
  • Creative responses (e.g. writing a poem after a guided walk)
  • Opportunities to learn new things about nature, for example wildflower identification
  • Mindfulness or forest bathing
  • Volunteering (e.g. helping with a survey for wildlife or noting what is growing, doing some forestry maintenance or planting) 

This is enabling us to design better activities and programmes which we and our partners can match to the needs of different individuals and groups.

Photos provided by Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum.

Arboretum Rodger .jpg