The COVID-19 pandemic and its prolonged lockdowns in Italy encouraged to reconsider the relationship between mental health, well-being and the ecosystems that constitute our living environment. Thus, HELIOS has explored how the presence of nearby nature and green space as well as the quality of the living environment have an impact on our mental health and well-being. The project did so by relying on an interdisciplinary approach based on citizen engagement and knowledge co-creation. The final aim was to offer insights for planners and policymakers for the design and management of places in times of a health crisis and beyond it.
HELIOS included one citizen engagement process carried out over three phases, which took place in the city of Verona (Italy). Its objective was to bring the perspectives and voices of city dwellers into the research over the nexus between mental health and the living environment and ensure that local views and lived experiences were taken into account to complement quantitative measures of the relation between mental health and the quality of the environment.
HELIOS involved researchers of the Joint Research Centre (European Commission, Ispra site) with expertise in environmental quality, public health, and citizen engagement in science and policy. The research project is conducted in close collaboration with external experts in the fields of psychiatry (University of Verona) and citizen science.
The case-study here reported concerns the results and learnings of the citizen engagement process, designed and implemented by a citizen science expert in collaboration with the Competence Centre on Participatory and Deliberative Democracy.
When and Where
- Fourteen adult residents took part in the engagement process, which was built on the photovoice method (see next section). The average age of participants was 57 (range 24 - 76 years). Almost all the participants are professionally or amateurly interested in the theme dealt with by the HELIOS project. For instance, some of them were psychotherapists, someone have promoted or joined civic movements for improving the urban quality of Verona in the past; others belong to environmentalist associations, others are photographers.
The final project event was attended by about (TBC) participants, among residents, stakeholders, researchers, and policymakers.
- In workshop 1, the research team explained the project aims and facilitated a discussion among participants over the type of environments they inhabited during the COVID-19 lockdown. During the following two weeks, participants were encouraged to take 2 to 4 photos of the places in Verona that affected their mental well-being. Participants were given a Photo-Kit where they could find all information about the project aims, data use, ethics measures, and instructions to take photos.
- Workshop 2 consisted of two parts. In the first one, participants reflected, discussed, and analysed their local environment with the support of the photos they produced. To guide group discussions triggering questions were used, such as: How does the represented place make you feel? What aspects of the environment contribute to this feeling? How does it relate to your well-being, now and during the lockdown? The second part of the workshop consisted of co-creating solutions that respond to the problems identified during the analysis of photos and collecting ideas for the final photo exhibition.
- As part of the follow-up with citizens, two online meetings were carried out with participants, focusing, among others on the organization of the final event.
- The final event will be held in a municipal hall in the centre of Verona and was aimed at presenting the project outcomes to policymakers, key stakeholders, local media, and the general population. A central part of the event will be dedicated to the presentation of the citizen engagement process and outcomes, and the inauguration of the photography exhibition. The exhibition, representing the legacy of the project, takes both a virtual form and a set of pocket-size cards with a map of the city of Verona annexed to them. More information will follow in due time.
The results of the engagement process are to be understood as exploratory and not definitive. They show that the natural, social and built environments in which people live influence to a great extent their emotional state. In particular, the results highlight the importance of considering not only the physical attributes of the environment (e.g., square meters of green spaces, pollution particles) but also how it is experienced. In other words, the appearance of places (e.g. building design, care of spaces, visual harmony), their functional characteristics (e.g. walkability, opportunities for socialising), and collective dimension (e.g. citizens’ participation, urban management and planning) can influence the way how people feel in an environment. Overall, these findings revealed that residents’ framing of environmental quality in relation to mental well-being was different from the one initially conceptualised in HELIOS, in which the environment was mainly discussed in terms of green spaces, air and noise pollution. Thus, the findings demonstrate the benefits of engaging citizens to broaden the scientific gaze on the research agenda.
Other tangible outcomes:
- 7 policy recommendations built from the results of the engagement project and discussed with the group of participants.
- A virtual exhibition accessible here https://cop-demos.jrc.ec.europa.eu/pages/helios-virtual-exhibition, presenting the HELIOS project main outcomes, i.e., the photographs, and related narratives, created by participants.
- A pocket-sized exhibition consisting of a box containing a map of the city and 31 georeferenced postcards representing the pictures taken by participants
- An online toolkit: all the materials used to carry out the HELIOS engagement activities are made available for download to facilitate future use by other actors and foster replication and appropriation of the process.
A two-pager presenting the project goals and main outcomes, aimed at local policymakers, was shared with participants to 1) inform them about the communications and interactions that took place between the researcher team and the local administration and 2) share some results of the quantitative part of the research. The final event served as a return of the research results to the general public, including people not involved in HELIOS activities.
Recruitment was also challenging because of the need to build local support networks from scratch in a short period of time. Word of mouth resulted to be the most effective method for recruiting participants. In this respect, it was key to identify local champions with local influence who disseminated the call among key channels and networks. It was also important to disseminate the call through communication channels that are relevant in the local context (e.g., identify the social media most used locally).
Despite the will of the participants and the methodology being fit for replication, project continuity is difficult to assure, given the lack of financial support and someone to take the lead.
As for the difficulties encountered in the study of the topic at stake, we found that participants found it difficult to engage in activities on sharing their mental health concerns, especially in relation to the pandemic period, thus at posteriori. Emphasis was placed on creating a safe space where participants could meaningfully share their voices, thanks to the particular way in which the engagement process was designed, namely i) it aligned with interests and concerns that exist within the group of participants, ii) promoted agency allowing participants to make decisions and engaging them in co-learning, iii) gathered participants through a series of events that facilitates trust building, iv) encouraged continuous communication with participants throughout the duration of the project.
Another challenge was that participants could not see the impact of their contributions to the scientific process as quantitative research findings were made available only at the very end of the project. In view of a missed feedback loop between the scientific process and the citizen engagement one, a suitable engagement strategy was designed that could work independently of the scientific process that was carried out in parallel.
2. Photo-elicitation confirm to be an attractive, effective, and easy-to-implement and replicate method for engaging citizens in research, fostering critical debate and reflection on the living environment, as well as deriving policy recommendations.
3. Participatory processes, especially those that aim to foster community reflection and change, are often attended by people who are already committed and interested in the topic at stake. The results thus may not be transferable to the whole population as other voices may not be represented in them. Nevertheless, the findings should be considered a suitable basis for further investigation and validation. Clarifying the value of the findings is crucial to managing the expectations of researchers and policymakers.
- Build on existing networks and community champions to recruit participants
- Creating a variety of communication materials is key to supporting word of mouth (e.g. project website, WhatsApp messages, email template messages).