Jill Litt

Nature as an antidote to loneliness and disconnection: Dr. Jill Litt’s journey in Social Prescribing

Being introduced to the ecology of food through university as an undergraduate student, she was fascinated by Nutritional Anthropology. Professor of Environmental Health in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a Senior researcher at the Barcelona Institute of Global Health (ISGlobal), Jill Litt received her PhD in Environmental Health and Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She will be one of the international experts offering contents during in-person Forest Therapy Practitioner training FTHub Summer School in Barcelona (July 7-14).

Living in cities like Baltimore and working in very polluted areas got her thinking about this acute risk people faced that started to keep her up at night. One day, thanks to a civil engineer colleague, she discovered a community garden, “a really magical place”: the Boston Food Project, an initiative to connect young people with food producing landscapes in the city. The Coordinator of the outstanding UE-funded RECETAS Project has a sensitive approach and a strong conviction in favor of interdisciplinary collaboration. Learn about the amazing life changes she has witnessed. 

“What struck me most was how happy these teenagers were on every facet of this productive landscape, and what it brought in.This was the essence of what we want to achieve if we redevelop land or community, creating these shared and safe spaces where people can have contact with nature, produce food, have nourishment, not just nutritionally: socially, economically, and so forth.  That was a game changer.

“I thought this is what I want to dedicate my career to, creating these spaces and evaluating how to make them the highest level of impact. Professionally, was this shift from cleanup to redevelopment and how to redevelop and the role of food, which I had never seen coming. I was very much interested in how to clean out pollution, and mostly working on  contaminated soil, air, looking at long term health risks like cancer and chronic diseases. I became more interested in everyday environments, and how we can create self-promoting everyday environments that make people feel good, foster interactions, and are safe.

I never realized until later I really had this goal circle from when I thought I might do a PhD in nutritional anthropology as a senior at my university, to getting a PhD in Environmental Health, expanding to include epidemiology, working on public policy, and then folding back in this nutritional anthropology piece, which is understanding the meaning of food, how people experience landscape, bringing all those pieces together”.

“Then through this gardens’ research we released, my whole outlook started to change about how we think about neighborhoods. It started to add things like place attachment and how people have social cohesion and how it matters for public health. We started to develop ways in which we could do randomized controlled trials, looking and strengthening the evidence base, always with an eye towards translation, exploitation of results, and putting us into practice”. 

“We learned that people didn’t garden for health reasons. They garden because it made them feel good and because they wanted to get their hands dirty. And so those things, these tactile, emotional and social aspects of gardening were what got me thinking more about nature based interventions more generally”.

Interdisciplinary collaboration

And that’s how I got into social prescribing and using nature based interventions as part of our public health arsenal, if you will. And now we have the European commission project, which is really allowing us to test these ideas in six countries with completely different populations, using nature based solutions and social prescriptions to address loneliness

“We’ve been able to look at it from a global perspective. And I love how it’s so different to do research in the European context, amplifying the way in which you can do work. The vantage point in Europe is about how they embrace social determinants of health, how they think about social systems, how they think about nature as part of our public health solution”.

“For the role of interdisciplinary partnerships in the forests and health realm, bringing practitioners together it’s really powerful, to have these connections and collaborations from different disciplines. It’s really hard because we bring our different lenses in the way we see the world. But it gives a lot of promise for how integration and cooperation and collaboration can happen”. 

“Nature-Health work has opened that up, giving the world a lot of examples of how we can work together to make sure these resources are protected. We want to be able to access these resources for our health and wellbeing. We have so much work to do from a policy perspective to have the right data and evidence to show why. The way in which FTHub is bringing people together is really vital to have that cross that conversation, that global conversation”. 

Social Prescribing and the RECETAS Project* 

“I feel like right now I’m in that dream project where I get to work with scholars from so many different disciplines across the globe to talk about an issue we care so deeply about, which is social connection and bringing nature in as one of the antidotes to help us foster these connections, sustain them, and prevent the consequences of not having those connections, which would be loneliness and social isolation. 

“The next step is to move this outside of our study areas, to begin to see this adopted more widely, to bring in a technological solution to help support implementation, and to continue to evaluate how this works over time. But all of the pieces of having landscape ecologists, conservation biologists, urban planners, epidemiologists, like all of these folks in one place is beautiful.

“And then what’s coming back from participants is life changing, these interventions have saved their lives. These are quotes from focus groups coming out of the different places where we’re testing this. People feeling so desperately alone, no one to talk to, and having this lifeline of this group, knowing that their care providers have referred them to this option. And the other beautiful piece is seeing that providers want this as well”.

“We are every day getting calls to bring this intervention to other settings and trying to figure out the resources. I see this as just the beginning of a long term commitment to really trying to change medicine, make this part of the training for medical doctors, that they start to talk about this and to expand the reach to social workers and nurse practitioners and other care professionals. They’re in it together. And knowing that they can use these resources in the community to help advance these goals is beautiful”.

Testimonies, by Jill Litt

“A woman described living in a one room with her daughter who was a teenager. They lived in a room, didn’t have a kitchen. There were months where she would go and not talk to anyone. She didn’t know how to support her teenager, and was devastated. And this kind of opened up, and in this group, she came every single time.”

“They all talked about nature as it would ignite these very positive memories of being with family and connection, and they kept wanting to come back. Wind on their face, wind in their hair, the sensation of getting their hands dirty.”


Ph: Courtesy Jill Litt 

*Re-imagining Environments for Connection and Engagement: Testing Actions for Social Prescribing in Natural Spaces (RECETAS) Consortium, funded by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020.

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