Complexity and uncertainty in geography of health research: incorporating a ‘life course of place’ perspective – Jamie Pearce
As geographic information specialists we are quite good at considering the implications of space, however the issue of time is somewhat neglected. This was at the centre of the seminar delivered by Professor Jamie Pearce who demonstrated the research benefits of a longitudinal perspective to place, space and health.
Jamie Pearce is a professor of health geography at the University of Edinburgh and is part of the CRESH research group. His work considers social, political and environmental processes affecting social and spatial inequalities in health. His primary argument in this seminar was that these processes are inextricably linked and that local particularites matter in understanding health over time. Life course theory looks at the critical periods of development that contribute to healthy ageing in utero, through childhood into adulthood and older age. It considers the various lifestyle factors and socio-economic factors that can have an impact on health and wellbeing.
Professor Pearce highlighted green space as an environmental factor that has been shown to have a widespread impact on health outcomes in Scotland. This was exemplified through research undertaken by the CRESH team. They have utilised the Lothian Birth Cohort, born in 1936, and surveyed some of those participants over the last decade to investigate the impact of place on public health over time. These results of these surveys have been combined with historical data – including digitising historical maps and boundaries – to understand the environmental factors.
Key findings included that access to green space had a positive impact on both mental health outcomes and also on cognitive ageing. Much of these benefits seem to be derived from childhood experiences and that accumulation of green space throughout life was also significant. It was also found that there was a correlation between high levels of anxiety and the most socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
These findings were said to show how the life course of a place can contribute to deeper understanding. It can help establish critical periods and causal relationships over time. It can also demonstrate the role of place in establishing and perpetuating inequalities, showing how historical processes can impact on human lives and who may end up trapped in areas with environmental disadvantages.
Some key limitations were emphasised, both methodological and conceptual. Dealing with time is a well recognised problem for geospatial studies. Often we have to deal with snapshots of places over time which can miss the more subtle and ever evolving nature of places, a challenge that must be faced in CRESH’s research. There are also challenges in dealing with the changing of administrative boundaries of time which can make analysis and the extrapolation of meaning increasingly difficult.
Jamie concluded this fascinating talk by illustrating some opportunities for further study – including aiming to look at a wider set of environmental characteristics and to scale this type of study nationally. The seminar showed that life course theory can have a significant impact on our understanding of space by focussing on the role of time, and of environmental factors at the various stages in life. This can help to offer evidence that can shape key policy decisions in child health, cognitive ageing and environmental inequalities.
Sophie McCallum, MSc in Geographical Information Science