Do scenic spots benefit our health?

Does living in a beauty spot make us healthier? And what do we consider a scenic view? These were the questions faced by researchers at the Turing Institute when they began their study using large-scale data capture to look at the role our environment plays in our health. Here, Chanuki Illushka Seresinhe of Warwick University shares some tantalising initial findings from the innovative research carried out at the Turing Institute, where she is spending an enrichment year.

For centuries, philosophers, policy-makers and urban planners have debated whether living in more picturesque surroundings can improve our wellbeing. However, finding evidence to inform this debate has proven to be tricky, as gathering large-scale survey data on people’s perceptions of their surroundings is a highly time-consuming and costly endeavour. Luckily, today we have a new resource: all the data generated through our increasing interactions with the internet has allowed us to measure human experience on an unprecedented scale.

We were thrilled to discover the online game Scenic-Or-Not, where Internet users rate the “scenicness” of photos that cover nearly 95% of the 1 km grid squares of Great Britain. Over 1.5 million ratings of more than 212,000 pictures of Britain have been collected so far. In our first study exploring the connection between scenic places and human wellbeing, we decided to combine these ratings with data from the 2011 Census for England and Wales, where people report their health status. We wanted to find out if people feel healthier in more scenic environments.

However, we also had to account for a wide range of confounding factors that might be related to people’s reports about their health. For example, it could be that richer people are living in more scenic areas, and thus reporting better health. Or, scenic places might be only those that are in rural areas. After building a variety of such factors into our analysis, including neighbourhood income and access to services, we still found that people feel healthier when they live in more scenic locations, and this holds across urban, suburban and rural areas. 

Crucially, we also found that scenic areas were not simply green areas. While our analysis confirmed that people do report better health in areas with more green land cover, we found that reports of health can be better explained when considering ratings of scenicness, rather than purely by measurements of green space.

So, you might ask, what are these beautiful places actually composed of? We decided to get a deeper understanding of the all the images being rated on Scenic-Or-Not by using an AI algorithm, specifically MIT Places, to analyse over 200,000 Scenic-or-Not images to uncover what attributes, such as “trees”, “mountain”, “hospital” and “highway”, corresponded to high and low scenic ratings.

We discovered that features such as “Valley”, “Coast”, “Mountain” and “Trees” were associated with higher scenicness. However, some man-made elements also tended to improve scores, including historical architecture such as “Church”, “Castle”, “Tower” and “Cottage”, as well as bridge-like structures such as “Viaduct” and “Aqueduct”. Interestingly, large areas of greenspace such as “Grass” and “Athletic Field” led to lower ratings of scenicness, rather than boosting scores. You can read that research here.

It appears that the old adage ‘natural is beautiful’ seems to be incomplete: flat and uninteresting green spaces are not necessarily beautiful, while characterful buildings and stunning architectural features can improve the beauty of a scene.

In order to ensure the wellbeing of local residents, urban planners and policy makers might find it valuable to consider the aesthetics of the environment when embarking on new projects. Our findings imply that simply introducing greenery, without considering the beauty of the resulting environment, might not be enough.

In the next phase of this research we are exploring whether people are also happier in more beautiful environment, using data from the innovative iPhone app Mappiness. Follow us on Twitter at @thedatascilab or @thoughtsymmetry for further developments on this research.


What wellbeing data do local authorities need to make better decisions?



Download Understanding local needs for wellbeing data (July 2017)

Download only the appendices (with indicator sets and guidance)



  • Local Wellbeing Indicators use existing data and the best research to show true picture of local residents’ lives and community wellbeing.
  • Indicators look at personal relationships, economics, education, childhood, equality, health, place and social relationships- currently no local authority uses all of this data in one place to meet local needs.

For the first time, local authorities can use data on things like job quality, anxiety levels, social isolation, green space and how physically active people are to get better insights into what really matters to their communities.

Currently, local authorities have to rely solely on traditional metrics, such as unemployment and material deprivation, to build an idea of where people are struggling and thriving. The new indicators now offer, in addition to these, a real-world set of measures for data that follows people’s quality of life from cradle to grave. This gives a more sophisticated picture of where communities may be at risk of health, financial and social problems.

Their origins and next steps

To develop the indicators, What Works Centre for Wellbeing partnered with Happy City and consulted with individuals in 26 different organisations, including nine city councils, seven county or district councils, the three devolved governments (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), and nine other organisations including the Local Government Association, Defra, The Health Foundation and the New Economics Foundation.

We are now working with Happy City to visualise the indicator data for different regions of the UK. We are also using pilots of the indicators in some representative local authority and public health settings to see if they are flexible enough to be useful, whatever the profile of an area, for example urban versus rural.

Will they work for you?

To refine and develop the indicators, we encourage you to try out the set and share
your learning with us, so we can continue to refine and develop it for use by practitioners who are not data specialists. Our aim is to continually improve them to provide an accessible snapshot of local wellbeing, and make sure the indicators fit with other established initiatives and data sets, such as JSNAs, quality of life surveys and so on.

If you are planning to test the indicators, or have any questions, please get in touch and let us know:

Call for evidence: Community infrastructure (places and spaces) impact on social relations & community wellbeing evaluations

What’s happening?

We are carrying out a systematic review to find out whether interventions designed to improve community places and spaces are effective in improving social relationships and community wellbeing. We are particularly interested in any effects (positive or negative) on inequalities, and any differences in effects across different settings and population groups.

The review team will be doing a careful search for published material, but would also like to include ‘grey’ literature – such as evaluations that have yet to be published, or reports and evaluations produced by charities, government departments, or community groups.

How can you get involved?

If you are aware of an evaluation of an intervention designed to improve community places and spaces, with the aim of improving social relations or wellbeing, you can submit it to our systematic review and help us build an evidence base for community infrastructure interventions.

We are particularly seeking evidence that meets the following criteria:

  1. Evaluation studies with assessments of social relations or wellbeing taken before and after the intervention – this is to allow us to determine whether the intervention was associated with any changes in wellbeing.
  2. Evidence that includes comparison groups that were not exposed to the intervention is particularly welcome.
  3. Evaluations of interventions designed for populations at risk of inequalities
  4. Qualitative (e.g. interviews) and quantitative (i.e. figures-based) evidence is welcome.

All examples must be written in English and include an author and date. We can only include evidence which can be made publicly available. If the work was done outside the UK, it would be helpful if you could tell us something about how relevant you think the findings are likely to be to the UK setting.

Please send your submissions electronically to us at with the subject line ‘Evidence: Wellbeing and Community Infrastructure”

Submission deadline: 9 August 2017.

The protocol is on PROSPERO

What can we learn about wellbeing and social capital from South Australia?

We partnered with Wellbeing and Resilience Centre  at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) and the University of Adelaide in the state of South Australia to look at their population level wellbeing data. It includes the same personal wellbeing questions as the UK data.

The research, published last month, is based on the South Australian Monitoring and Surveillance System, a monthly chronic disease and risk factor surveillance system of randomly selected people. It’s a very large survey that is representative of the population and looks at a large range of possible related factors. It shows only links – correlations – not causation, but is still useful as an indicator of where policy and community action could focus.

We found similar patterns to the UK, with higher wellbeing more likely for:

  • women
  • those living in rural areas
  • married
  • those able to save.

Lower levels of wellbeing were found in:

  • younger respondents
  • those living in the metropolitan area
  • the never married
  • those unable to save.

Control over decisions that affect our lives

The interesting thing about this dataset is that it also allows us to look at social capital. This was measured by how:

  • safe people feel
  • much people trust each other in their neighbourhood
  • how much control they have over decisions that affect their lives.  

We found that worse measures of social capital indicated lower levels of wellbeing, even when controlling for age and gender. The strongest relationship between social capital and wellbeing was when it came to how much people felt they had control over decisions that affect life. Those who do not have control were over 10 times more likely to have poor wellbeing.

The research points out that social capital, trust and relationships within a community, is at its strongest when disasters, problems or change affect a community. Investment in strengthening social capital along with resilience infrastructure- things like flood defences – in times of non-emergency could improve community resilience.

Health conditions and associated risk factors

The data also looks at a wide range of health indicators at the same time as wellbeing and social capital. Somewhat surprising in the analysis was the lack of meaningful associations between the chronic diseases and wellbeing, except for asthma. Previous findings have possible explanation: that two people can have the same health condition yet have very different levels of wellbeing, because it is ‘self-perceived health’, and especially experience of pain, that is the bigger contributor to overall wellbeing.  

The study did find that all risk factors for chronic diseases – alcohol harm, physical activity and fruit & veg consumption – were related to a person’s wellbeing. Only Body Mass Index (BMI) had no bearing on it.

A state of wellbeing in South Australia: the PERMA PLUS public health model

The current government of South Australia aims to become the first government in the world to systematically measure and build wellbeing across different cohorts and lifespans of the society to reduce the number of people experiencing catastrophic mental illness and to improve the resilience of the population. They aim to ‘foster factors that allow individuals, communities and societies to flourish.’

They use an evidence based model called PERMA Plus as the basis for the projects they do to improve wellbeing and resilience.  

Positive emotion






  • Sleep
  • Nutrition (5 veg 2 fruits a day)
  • Physical activity  
  • Optimism