Introduction

On 30th November 2016 at the inaugural Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – Health Service Executive (HSE) conference in Dublin entitled “Our Environment, Our Health, Our Wellbeing”, the challenge was set, to promote a greater awareness of the impact of environmental quality on human health in Ireland. That the environment and human health are inextricably linked is recognised in the Government’s Framework for improved health and wellbeing 2013 – 2025 – ‘Healthy Ireland’ and the EPA’s Strategic Plan 2016 – 2020 – ‘Our Environment, Our Wellbeing’.

Jock Martin, Head of Integrated Environmental Assessments at the European Environmental Agency (EEA), extended a call to the EPA-HSE for Ireland to provide a Case Study in the EEA’s forthcoming 2019 report, Environment, Health and Well-being. The EEA report will reflect on how multiple environmental stressors combine to impact on human health, and how the nature and scale of the impact is influenced by current trends in demography and urbanisation. The report will also explore the benefits provided by green and blue spaces, with a particular focus on accessibility.

The EPA in response, see Ireland has much to contribute from its unique local level capabilities to “explore potential associations between health and exposure to environmental stressors” and to answering, “How the combined trends, demographics, urbanisation, regional environment pressures and socio-economic status, influence our exposure, vulnerability and resilience in Europe?” The SHEER project sets out to inform this question.

Description

Our team’s expertise is in systems and complexity science, big data analytics, Internet of things (IoT) including biomonitoring, and eGovernance, collaborative local community-based participation, environment, health and well-being research and policy innovation. We will draw upon this expertise to respond to the EEA’s brief. Our project’s overarching goal is to present an Irish case study addressing the regional and local level links between our environment and our health and well-being — the priority topic identified by our partners in the EPA and HSE as an overarching systemic issue for Ireland, and by the EEA for Europe’s 8th Environment Action Programme 2021.

Building upon established partnerships, including our relationship with the EPA and HSE, we will review, map, analyse and synthesise multi-causal, national, regional and local level data to document the connections and intersections between Our Environment, Our Health and Our Well-Being in Ireland for the next iteration of the EEA 2019 report. Specifically, we will concentrate on two priority thematic areas, Water Quality and the health impacts of Access to Blue/Green spaces as identified by the EPA and EEA. The overall research question asks “What is the environmental and health evidence regarding the role of socio-economic status in determining exposure, susceptibility and vulnerability to Water Quality and Access to Blue/Green spaces in Ireland?”

Aims and Objectives

The primary aim of this EPA Irish Case Study is to complement the EEA’s broad assessment and to explore possible impact in greater national, regional and local depth through data analytics, visualisation and mapping the key forces and patterns at work in relation to Water Quality and Access to Blue/Green Spaces in Ireland. To achieve our overarching goal, specific objectives include:

1: To review the national, regional and local evidence regarding the role of socio-economic status in determining exposure, susceptibility and vulnerability to water quality and the health impacts of access to green, blue spaces using hard data and soft data.

2: To conduct a national, regional and local data audit and gap analysis relating to the two thematic areas in Ireland.

3: To explore, map and interpret spatial differences in the thematic areas in Ireland.

4: To map the dynamics in greater national, regional and local depth through data visualisation and CoP/Stakeholder modelling the key forces and patterns at work.

5: To identify how access to green and blue spaces influences resilience to other environmental stressors.

6: To make recommendations towards healthier environmental ecosystems and towards future research and policies in Ireland at local, regional and national levels.

Outline

The Environment and Health and Well-Being are complex, dynamic intersecting systems. An innovative strategy to manage complex problems (such as exposures, vulnerabilities, resilience and solutions) through an improved understanding of their dynamics is offered by a ‘systems and complexity perspective.’ A ‘system’ is a set of interacting elements — people and organizations — who generate patterns of behaviours and choices over time (1). Complex systems mapping, as an analytical and multi-causal approach to Water Quality and Access to Blue/Green Spaces in Ireland, can be characterized as the use of systems science, data analytics, data visualisation, community and stakeholder engagement with management insights to hypothesize, analyse and refine explanations of the intersecting causal dynamics.  These explanations underpinning the complex feedback system are used to guide decision-making and inform policy developments, practice and citizen ownership. A dynamic multi-causal perspective stresses the importance of the evidence base, intersections, feedback loops, and integration of all stakeholders in society among the system’s parts over time (2). Lawrence W Green optimistically asked of systems science: “Will it achieve methodologically what ‘ecological’ approaches have offered conceptually as a way of encompassing the multiple levels necessary to understand and harness reciprocal relations among biology, behaviour, and environments?” We believe the answer is a definitive “yes.”(3).

SHEER – Our Environment, Our Health and Our Well-Being; Water Quality and Access to Blue/Green Spaces in Ireland takes an analytical, multi-causal case study approach using highly participatory inter/multi-disciplinary teams applying hard quantitative data evidence-based practice in conjunction with soft qualitative data practice-based evidence.