RSPB member Shahid Islam is on a mission to reduce health inequalities by bringing nature into people’s lives.

Bradford has been named City of Culture for 2025 but one of its residents, Shahid Islam, hopes to add another accolade to this: “I’d love for it to be known one day as a city of horticulture.”

Shahid works hard, through his job as an academic and as a community activist, to make Bradford a city where everyone has access to green spaces. “I engage communities in as many ways as possible to get them interested in nature for both environmental and health reasons,” he explains. Whether it’s through his work as a senior research fellow at the Bradford Institute for Health Research (BIHR), volunteering at community gardens, or finding ways to communicate the benefits of nature to deprived communities, he's dedicated to improving lives and reducing health inequalities by increasing access to green spaces and raising awareness of their benefits.

Shahid Islam

At work, Shahid has seen clear evidence that nature makes us happier and healthier. One of the many projects he’s been involved with is Born in Bradford – a study tracking the lives of over 30,000 Bradfordians to find out how the health and wellbeing of the city’s residents can be improved. The research team sent 10 key recommendations for action to the Bradford Metropolitan District Council as a result – one of which is to improve access and availability to high-quality green spaces to enhance physical and mental health.

The Born in Bradford research found a link between green spaces and a reduced risk of depression in pregnant mothers, healthier birthweight, and improved mental wellbeing in young children. But the research has also brought to light stark inequalities in access to these all-important green spaces: people living in deprived parts of Bradford have less access to them, and they’re less satisfied with the green spaces that they do have.

Across the city, there are significant health inequalities: between the most and least deprived areas of Bradford, there’s a 10-year difference in life expectancy. And it’s not just about how long people live – it’s how well they live, too. It’s Shahid and the BIHR’s mission to put this research into practice and narrow this gap by bringing the benefits of nature to those who need it the most.

In densely-populated inner-city areas where green spaces might be limited, unused sites can be given a new lease of life as community gardens – and it’s these sorts of places that Shahid champions. He frequently volunteers at local gardens such as Horton Community Farm – a once derelict dumping ground transformed into a thriving community green space – and he’s been involved in plans to transform a space within the hospital he works at into a wildlife-friendly peace garden. Shahid said, “Wherever such gardens are created, you can really sense an improvement in the way people feel about where they live and the positive effect this has on their health and wellbeing,” he observes.

Green spaces don’t have to be big to be impactful – even the smallest of back gardens can be put to good use with a little thought. The process of transforming these spaces brings a multitude of benefits for our physical and mental health, too. Physically, gardening improves our cardiovascular health and strengthens our muscles. In turn, this physical activity triggers the release of feel-good endorphins, and reduces the levels of the body’s stress hormones; even the smell of soil has anti-depressant properties. And then there’s the sense of achievement and self-esteem boost that comes with gardening – whether it's successfully growing new vegetables or seeing the seeds you’ve sown flourish into blooming flowers.

But it’s not just about creating and improving green spaces – another challenge is getting people to realise the benefits they bring. Shahid wrote a compelling article for a community magazine on the benefits of gardening – reaching 6500 homes in Little Horton, one of Bradford’s most deprived wards. Shahid was pleasantly surprised by how many people were inspired to get green-fingered in response to his article, with some even taking up gardening as a serious hobby. Beyond Bradford’s back gardens, Shahid also organised a minibus to take people from poorer parts of the city to RHS Garden Harlow Carr in Harrogate to grow people’s interest in the healing powers of nature.

As a keen academic and community activist and member of the British Pakistani community, Shahid seeks to get as many people interested in nature in as many ways as he can. Every action, whether academic or practical, is a step towards creating that city of horticulture of which he dreams.

This blog is an extended version of our 'Your Stories' feature from the autumn/winter 2022 issue of The RSPB Magazine.