Analysis: seas, rivers and lakes are proven to improve health and wellbeing, yet there are barriers which prevent many of us from using them

By Sinead Duane and Dmitry Brychkov, University of Galway

Ireland is home to over 3,000km of rugged coastlines with some of our beaches ranked amongst the best in the world. During the pandemic we turned to our blue spaces in our droves, with many of us being reminded of their beauty and reigniting our love of this precious resource and giving us a renewed appreciation of what it has to offer.

As well as being a natural beauty, usage of blue spaces has been linked to improved mental and physical health as well as the added benefit of providing opportunities and a space for interacting socially with one another. Blue spaces offer countless opportunities to improve our health and wellbeing. In fact, it is now widely agreed that our health and the health of our environments are linked, reinforcing the importance of maintaining and improving the quality of our rivers, seas and lakes.

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From RTÉ Brainstorm, the joys of blue spaces

So what is stopping people from using and protecting our blue spaces? Blue space quality is a 'wicked' problem, meaning there is no one cause or solution. There are many contributors that are interrelated and people may also have competing views on how to address the issue. For example, many factors have an impact on bathing water quality, including urban waste waters, treatment plants, agriculture practices, dog fouling and littering, to name but a few.

Testing and monitoring is one important protective measure we have in place already, but we must take a more holistic view, examining how all stakeholders are currently interacting with our blue spaces. This approach deepens our understanding of the dynamic relationships at play and our knowledge of how to overcome the barriers to usage and still protect our Blue Spaces.

Recent research carried out by the PIER project examined both the barriers (what was stopping us) and enablers (things that worked well) to using blue spaces. People living in Ireland shared their views, including regular dippers, day-trippers, staycationers, advocates and policy makers. Three main barriers were identified.

Blue space protection

This centres around embedding and enforcing effective national policy. Policy management barriers were linked to health and safety related restrictions such as closing of beaches in response to water quality issues and resourcing dedicated spaces aimed at reducing conflict between different types of Blue Space users i.e. swimming and motorised boating areas.

At present, the provision of information is seen as inadequate due to time delays in conveying details to users. Testing and monitoring is in place, which is valued within the community. But testing only takes place during the bathing season (June 1st-September 15th) and only tests for specific bugs, which means those who use the waters outside of these times may be at risk.

Pro-business activities encouraging the development and usage of blue spaces are also taking place, increasing the need to monitor the impact on the health of the overall blue space environment. This investment and development should not contradict conservation activities which should also be prioritised.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, do you have a favourite blue space?

Critical mass at blue spaces

Respondants highlighted the multiple positive societal benefits of using waters such as community building and the social networks that have been established in these communities. However, blue space use sees the introduction of critical mass to blue spaces at a moment in time. Think of a sunny day in July when everyone descends on their nearest beach and the problems that occur.

The popularity of certain spaces can reinforce arguments for further beneficial investment in facilities at these locations such as infrastructure and safety equipment. However, critical mass violation comes with detrimental effects. Overuse of blue spaces without protection can impact the health of these environments through increased pollution, extreme noise and therefore reduce the attractiveness of the space in the long term.

Sharing blue spaces

Cost, ability to travel, weather and conflict between users are all barriers to sharing blue spaces. Access to slue spaces may be free, but underlying costs may inhibit your ability to use it. If you live far away from thr sea or rivers, this can act as a barrier, particularly as access to public transport infrastructure to remote locations is difficult.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Louise McSharry Show in 2021, Ella McSweeney on Ireland's gorgeous rivers and how swimming in them may help fight pollution by getting them bathing site status

Other aspects such as private land ownership, laws and insurance costs can all disrupt our ability to enjoy blue spaces. How others use them is also a factor, with anti-social behaviour such as alcohol use, bad attitudes and misconduct preventing people from freely engaging. Stakeholders are also conflicted about who should be allowed to use blue paces: for example, bye-laws can restrict dog walking and usage of jet skis.

We can become more aware of the complexities of protecting and maintaining our blue spaces by having a deeper understanding of human and environment interactions in their entirety. There is a balancing act in relation to individual needs, communities and the health of the environment and we must work together to develop solutions. These insights can be used as opportunities to leverage the networks of communities that are already formed; improve information provision; develop dedicated spaces for different types of blue space users; improve testing and monitoring and national policy implementation and enforcement to address this wicked problem.

The PIER project is funded by the EPA

Dr Sinead Duane is a Lecturer in Marketing at the J.E. Cairnes School of Business and Economics at the University of Galway. Dr Dmitry Brychkov is a Postdoctoral Researcher with the Applied Systems Thinking Group in the Whitaker Institute at the University of Galway.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ