Nature Connectedness and Biophilic Design

Biophilic design is a building design concept used to increase occupant connectivity to the natural environment. Stephen Kellert was one of the pioneers of biophilic design and with Elizabeth Calabrese published The Practice of Biophilic Design. Kellert also identified the nine values of biophilia, five of which formed the basis for our 2017 pathways to nature connectedness. Since 2015 there has been a rapid growth in research into nature connectedness, both the benefits to human and nature’s wellbeing, and how to improve it. This has led to the pathways to nature connectedness being widely used. So, I’ve been thinking about how the pathways to nature connectedness integrate into Biophilic Design to maximise the benefits it can bring.

Why consider nature connectedness?

‘Nature connectedness’ refers to the way we relate to and experience nature. A strong connection with nature means feeling a close relationship or an emotional attachment to our natural surroundings. It is grounded in scientific study and measurable which allows research to establish the benefits and the design of interventions to improve it. Greater nature connectedness delivers better mental health and is key for both carbon cutting pro-environmental behaviours and wildlife friendly pro-nature conservation behaviours – more so than passive exposure to nature. Some interpretations and applications of Biophilic Design can focus on built elements and exposure alone. However, incorporating the pathways to nature connectedness brings the original Biophilic Design principles of meaningful and emotional engagement with nature back to the fore. Finally, incorporating recent research findings from nature connectedness increases the evidence base and justification for Biophilic Design.

Biophilic Design Principles

In The Practice of Biophilic Design, Kellert and Calabrese state five basic principles essential for the successful application of biophilic design. Three of these are highly related to nature connectedness:

  • Biophilic design requires repeated and sustained engagement with nature.
  • Biophilic design encourages an emotional attachment to particular settings and places.
  • Biophilic design promotes positive interactions between people and nature that encourage an expanded sense of relationship and responsibility for the human and natural communities.

These principles are of great relevance to nature connectedness and overlap with some of the pathways to nature connectedness, which are based on Kellert’s values of Biophilia. They are more behavioural elements of the eventual users of a biophilic design.

The Application of Biophilic Design

In The Practice of Biophilic Design, the categories of the biophilic design framework are described as:

  • Direct experience of nature – actual contact with environmental features such as natural light, air, plants, animals, water, landscapes, fire and ecosystems.
  • Indirect experience of nature – contact with images of nature, natural materials, colours, shapes and forms that evoke and mimic nature
  • Experience of space and place – providing spatial features characteristic of nature that have advanced human health and wellbeing. Such as open views and places for retreat and refuge within organised diversity, clear pathways with natural waypoints and cultural and ecological elements that help develop attachment to place.

Considered alone and apart from the basic principles, the dimensions can be seen as material and physical elements for inclusion. If this becomes the focus, the need to foster engagement, emotional attachment and positive interactions to build a relationship with nature can be lost.

Research Evidence and Biophilic Design

Review articles (e.g. Gillis & Gatersleban, 2015; Hung & Chang, 2021) into biophilic design have presented evidence of the wellbeing benefits of individual elements of Biophilic Design, such as the use of plants, water, wood. However, these reviews have focussed on the three categories of application (direct, indirect, space and place) rather than the principles of biophilic design. Understandably, they also compile evidence on studies that have empirically tested an individual natural element, not necessarily within a biophilic design. There is less research on the impacts of the benefits of actual applications of biophilic design.

When considering empirical work on individual elements the context should be noted. For example, in the research showing the benefits of touching, or viewing images of, nature (for managing our emotions), people had to attend to the image or touch the material for a period of time, e.g. for several minutes. To gain the benefits the natural engagement must be engaged with – remember the principle above ‘Biophilic design requires repeated and sustained engagement with nature’.

The biophilic design principles are an essential element. When considering the principles, nature connectedness research provides further general evidence, although as above, to support their inclusion and use, rather than from actual biophilic designed buildings.

Recent nature connectedness research highlights the importance of the biophilic design principles, with findings showing that:

  • People’s nature connectedness (emotional attachment), rather than contact with nature, best predicts wellbeing.
  • When measured alongside nature connection and noticing nature, time in nature uniquely explained just 1% of happiness, a worthwhile life, and higher wellbeing.
  • Simply noticing ‘the good things in nature’ (positive interactions) brings sustained benefits to mental wellbeing, with clinically significant improvements for people with common mental health problems.
  • People’s nature connectedness, rather than contact with nature, predicts pro-environmental and pro-nature conservation behaviours.

The Importance of Direct Engagement

Further, the nature connectedness research shows which of the three categories of biophilic design are likely to contribute most to the benefits of biophilic design. In research on the relationship between nature connectedness, time in nature, direct and indirect engagement with nature, nature connectedness and direct engagement with nature consistently emerged as being the significant and prominent factors in explaining mental health and wellbeing. Time in nature and indirect engagement were not significant.

Direct engagement involved simple activities, noticing and engaging with nature. Or engaging with the natural features supplied by following the direct experience of nature biophilic design category. As we’ve seen above indirect images of nature can also bring benefits, but they need to be noticed and engaged with. When a natural element is provided (directly or indirect) there is a need to consider how will it be engaged with? Why will it be engaged with? How can the design prompt that engagement?

The need to, and power of, prompting people to engage and notice nature can be seen through our noticing the good things in nature research. In this study people’s smartphones were used to alert them when they were in a green space and asked them to record a ‘good thing in nature’. Doing so and prompting emotional responses led to significant increases in nature connectedness and wellbeing.

Direct engagement with nature is also needed for beneficial outcomes for nature. Research shows that it is simple direct engagement through actively tuning into nature that best explains pro-nature behaviours.

In sum, the three categories of biophilic design (direct, indirect, space and place) provide opportunities for contact, but recent nature connectedness research shows direct engagement and the principles of biophilic design are essential. Thankfully, the pathways to nature connectedness provide a framework for direct engagement and embedding the biophilic design principles.

Integrating the Pathways to Nature Connectedness into Biophilic Design

The pathways to nature connectedness can be combined with the three categories of biophilic design application to create an extended biophilic design framework. The pathways to nature connectedness focus on active engagement and have provided a new approach to nature engagement design. For example, in national programmes such as 30 Days Wild from The Wildlife Trusts and 50 things to do before you’re 11¾ from the National Trust.

Rather than design elements such as plants, wildlife and water, the pathways to nature connectedness outline the types of activity to prompt with those natural elements. They provide a framework with great flexibility of application. The pathways are:

  • Senses: Provide opportunities and prompts to notice and actively engaging with nature through the senses. Simply listening to birdsong, smelling wildflowers, or watching the breeze in the trees.
  • Emotion: Provide opportunities and prompts to engage emotionally with nature. Spaces to notice and reflect on the good things in nature, to experience the joy and calm nature can bring. Provide opportunities to express and share feelings about nature with others.
  • Beauty: Provide opportunities and prompts to find beauty in the natural world. Create spaces and moments to appreciate beauty in nature and to engage with it through art, music or in words.
  • Meaning: Provide places to use and explore how nature brings meaning to life. How nature appears in songs and stories, poems and art. Provide spaces to celebrate nature.
  • Compassion: Provide opportunities and prompts to care for nature. Spaces to take action for nature, such as creating homes for nature or planting insect friendly plants.

The matrix below shows how the pathways and biophilic design categories can be combined to ensure interactions of different types across the three categories of application. For example, the direct experience of water provides an excellent opportunity for calm and a place of refuge. Further, pathways and design categories will interact and combine, a place to care for nature can facilitate direct and sensory experience through creating more nature. All the pathways do not need to be activated at every point, the matrix provides a prompt to design in the opportunity for interaction when the opportunity arises without becoming contrived.

Biophilic Design & Nature Connectedness Framework

From Design to Use: The Need to Prompt Engagement

The research evidence, pathways and principles show that biophilic design cannot be passive. The space and features must be used and engaged with. Sadly, evidence shows that most people do not notice nature. Therefore, there is a need make the natural elements salient, and to prompt and provoke people to notice. To use design to demand attention and the power of affordances to encourage interaction.

Affordance theory highlights the many possibilities that a space or an object can offer – a tree can be a climbing frame or a place to rest. Affordances are possibilities for action suggested by the environment. Affordances don’t involve thinking as they are direct perception-action processes; all of the information is available within the environment so no instruction is needed. That said, at times people might need inviting into activities in order to realise potential affordances the environment offers. The more diverse the environment the more diverse the affordances and potential experiences. Biophilic design for nature connection could afford reflection – a space to pause and notice – close to features that engage the senses, a place of beauty that evokes emotions. A place that becomes meaningful with experiences one might wish to share.

Moving from the design of a physical space and features within it, to the behaviour of people occupying that space is a difficult process, especially when the principles require emotions to be fostered. So, although good design can influence behaviours, guidance on how users might enjoy and use a biophilic building should be considered. Especially as research evidence can challenge assumptions, such as nature connection comes from knowledge and identification or simply spending time in nature.

A biophilic workplace may need guidance on break taking (e.g. 30 Days Wild) and wellbeing programmes that facilitate sustained engagement with nature. A biophilic school may need guidance on opportunities for extra curricula activities (e.g. 50 Things), or even a biophilic curriculum. Otherwise a biophilic space could soon become more of a background for work or learning rather than a place of positive interactions between people and nature. The interactions that encourage a close relationship and emotional attachment that can help deliver wellbeing and a sustainable future.

Three Key Points

  1. Use the pathways to enact the biophilic design principles
  2. Prompt direct experience of natural elements rather than passive exposure
  3. Provide guidance and ideas for those using biophilic designs.

 

 

Lumber, R., Richardson, M., & Albertsen, J. A. (2018). Hfe in biophilic design: Human connections with nature. In Ergonomics and Human Factors for a Sustainable Future (pp. 161-190). Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore.

Hung, S. H., & Chang, C. Y. (2021). Health benefits of evidence-based biophilic-designed environments: A review. Journal of People, Plants, and Environment24(1), 1-16.

Gillis, K., & Gatersleben, B. (2015). A review of psychological literature on the health and wellbeing benefits of biophilic design. Buildings5(3), 948-963.

 

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Nature Connectedness for Recovery from Substance Use Disorder

The pathways to nature connectedness have been applied widely to the development of activities to develop a closer relationship with nature for wellbeing. They’ve also provided a design framework for physical spaces. We’ll soon publish a paper on a pathways informed audio meditation that improves mental health. Last week saw the publication of a paper describing how the pathways to nature connectedness can be used to aid recovery from Substance Use Disorder (SUD). The work was completed by colleagues at the University of Derby and I was involved in the initial conception and made a small contribution to the paper, now published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. It’s exciting to see the power of working with nature for wellbeing, and the utility of the pathways to inform such work.

Substance use disorder (SUD) affects millions of people. Various approaches to treatment are used including medication and counselling. Twelve step programmes (TSPs) have been found to deliver outcomes for the maintenance of abstinence from alcohol and other drugs. TSPs promote ‘restructured cognitions’ to help move away from thinking that perpetuates addiction. Accepting ‘powerlessness’ at Step 1 indicates the need for a “higher power” (Steps 2–3). With the impact on others (Steps 4–9) leading to a determination to move beyond self-centredness (Step 10) and seek a deeper, more spiritual, meaning in life (Step 11). Finally, there’s a shift from a focus on self to a focus on active service and altruism (Step 12). Previous research has found that a strong sense of spirituality was linked to reduced relapse rates. This suggests the effectiveness of TSPs lies in the creation of a spiritual connection.

Spiritual health is associated with psychosocial well-being which brings meaning and purpose. Spirituality is a key component of TSPs where participants seek a ‘higher power’, or “a god of our own understanding”. So, a goal of the TSP is the formation of a spiritual connection as fundamental as the idea of God (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1976). For flexibility around the higher power, TSPs are described as spiritual rather than religious. However, terms such as “spirituality” can present significant challenges for some, and atheists and agnostics have lower levels of TSP engagement. Therefore, alternatives to traditional deities are required.

One such alternative is nature and the human-nature relationship. Connecting with non-human life offers an opportunity to form a relationship with a higher power. Nature connectedness describes an individual’s relationship with the wider natural world and is linked to spirituality and is part of a meaningful life that facilitates a spiritual connection. The five pathways to nature connectedness provide a framework for developing nature connectedness. So, in the pilot it was proposed that they’d help individuals to use nature as a source of connection – to a power greater than themselves. Thereby providing an alternative to traditional deities within a TSP.

Nature as a Higher Power

A positive relationship with nature, where nature is offered as a higher power provides an alternative focus for people engaging in a TSP. The purpose of the pilot study was to see if using a pathways informed approach and higher power of nature worked for individuals in early recovery from SUD. Twelve volunteers from an aftercare programme of an inpatient drug and alcohol treatment centre in the UK took part. Each group engaged in four weekly one-hour sessions.

The nature sessions were designed to activate the pathways to nature connectedness (senses, emotion, beauty, meaning and compassion). For example in one session, the group were invited to consider the beauty of birds: their colour, form, and flight patterns. Paintings and photographs were displayed, and bird feathers made available to touch. Birdsong was played quietly. These sensory experiences were used as catalysts for discussion about any emotions associated with birds. The group were invited to share any meaning they found in the experience. For compassion, endangered and extinct bird species were introduced.

The control group followed an open 12 Step meeting format with a reading from Narcotics Anonymous (NA) text. The readings focused on themes such as “higher power”, “spiritual connection”, and “spiritual awakening”. The group then discussed their response to the readings.

Various measures were taken before and after the programme and, although a small pilot, significant improvements in nature connectedness, well-being, quality of life, and spirituality were found in the nature group. In contrast, no significant differences were found when a traditional deity was selected as the higher power in the control group. Of note was a five-point increase in the ReQoL 10 measure, indicating a clinical level of improvement in quality of life for the nature group.

In qualitative analysis, participants referred to pathway’s elements (e.g. beauty, senses meanings) showing pathway activation during the sessions. The approach and ability to form a connection with non-human life also led to a greater sense of social connectedness. The study provided further support for the effectiveness of the pathways approach to reconnect people with nature and improve wellbeing, but more importantly showed the effectiveness of the pathways within a therapeutic setting.

The approach also seemed to help those involved find renewed meaning in life with those taking part referring to removing negative energy, finding peace and stillness which then helped them connect with the higher power of nature.

While promising, the results are from a small pilot to support proof of concept. However, the results suggest that nature, and a reconnected relationship with it through the pathways approach, can be used as an alternative to traditional deities and could well be a highly effective approach for those recovering from substance use disorder. More widely, the study provides further support for the fundamental importance of a close relationship with nature.

 

 

Rhodes, C., Lumber, R. (2021). Using the Five Pathways to Nature to Make a Spiritual Connection in Early Recovery from SUD: a Pilot Study. Int J Ment Health Addiction. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-021-00565-4

 

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The Oak Project Introduces Silence

The crises of climate warming and wildlife loss have one thing at their heart: the failing relationship between people and nature. Our pathways to nature connectedness strongly suggest that artistic engagement with nature is key to building a new relationship with nature. So, it’s exciting to report that for many months I’ve been involved with a new project to create a national arts programme that creatively encourages people to explore their relationship with nature and connect to it.

The Oak Project is a partnership between Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the University of Derby and the Bronze Oak Project Ltd, a not-for-profit that promotes nature connection through art. The Oak Project is a programme that explores our relationship with the natural world and builds connection to nature through arts, culture and creativity. We believe an arts programme can:

  • Increase connection to nature across society.
  • Make nature more relevant to everyday lives.
  • Increase public action on the environment.
Heather and Ivan Morison, Silence - Alone in a World of Wounds, 2021. Commissioned by Yorkshire Sculpture Park on behalf of The Oak Project. Photography by Jonty Wilde.

Heather and Ivan Morison, Silence – Alone in a World of Wounds, 2021. Commissioned by Yorkshire Sculpture Park on behalf of The Oak Project. Photography by Jonty Wilde.

Over the next five years, we will pioneer arts-participation to create kinship with nature and aim to inspire and motivate public action for nature and climate. It all starts on World Environment Day on Saturday 5 June 2021 when the Oak Project unveils its first artist commission, Silence – Alone in a World of Wounds, hosted at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP), by artists Heather and Ivan Morison from Studio Morison.

Informed by research evidence from the Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby, the artists have developed a sculptural space – a ring, set within a stand of birch trees. It aims to create a place of solitary communion with the natural world, creating an area of calm contemplation. Silence – Alone in a World of Wounds will invite visitors to stop and connect, to consider and experience, and to listen to their natural surroundings. Over time, the work will become part of the landscape as the weather contributes to its decomposition, leaving only a slight indent and trace of a circle in the ground in years to come.

Heather and Ivan Morison, Silence - Alone in a World of Wounds, 2021. Commissioned by Yorkshire Sculpture Park on behalf of The Oak Project. Photography by Jonty Wilde.

Heather and Ivan Morison, Silence – Alone in a World of Wounds, 2021. Commissioned by Yorkshire Sculpture Park on behalf of The Oak Project. Photography by Jonty Wilde.

Silence – Alone in a World of Wounds taps into several aspects of research into the human-nature relationship. Its circular form and sense of calm reflects the contentment and connection circle of the three circles model of emotion regulation. A model used in our research to demonstrate how nature helps manage our moods, bringing balance to the circles of drive and threat.

How nature helps balance our emotions

At times the modern world can feel like a constant pursuit of goals and avoidance of threat. We can also find ourselves at the centre of a battle for our attention. When we do pause an advert or our phone often demands attention. Silence creates a space free of those distractions. Where nature can come to the fore. Where we can retune – after all our senses evolved to make sense of the natural world. Seeing the leaves of the birch, hearing their movement in the breeze, touching the bark and tuning into nature returns us to our origins. No wonder that noticing nature is essential to forming a close relationship with nature. Noticing nature can also improve our mental wellbeing and explains the actions we take for nature.

Silence is also a place for reflection on our relationships with nature – both good and bad. Those five types of relationship that lead to a closer relationship with nature – noticing nature, its beauty, the joy and calm it brings and what it means in your life such that you’ll consider what can you do for nature.

Heather and Ivan Morison, Silence - Alone in a World of Wounds, 2021. Commissioned by Yorkshire Sculpture Park on behalf of The Oak Project. Photography by Jonty Wilde.

Heather and Ivan Morison, Silence – Alone in a World of Wounds, 2021. Commissioned by Yorkshire Sculpture Park on behalf of The Oak Project. Photography by Jonty Wilde.

Perhaps people will also reflect on the wounds inflicted by our (utilitarian and dominionistic) relationships with nature that do harm. Our desire to use and control nature has left scars. Holes dug deep into the earth have fuelled the warming of the atmosphere, cloaking the natural world. Ancient woodlands are felled as new lines are drawn across the landscape. Concrete walls span our valleys, drowning lands. The land itself always managed, rarely wild. The wildlife that brings joy, beauty and meaning to our world is diminished and lost. A failing relationship with nature that saps our own wellbeing as a nation as we fall out of love with nature.

That is why Silence – Alone in a World of Wounds, and the work of the Oak Project to come, aims to build a new relationship with nature. Prompting reflection on the wounds, but a celebration of nature, because a close connection with nature is fundamental to both feeling well and a sustainable future.

 

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Nature Engagement for Human and Nature’s Wellbeing during the Corona Pandemic

During the restrictions to control the coronavirus pandemic people have visited and noticed nature more. We were curious to find out how nature benefited the nation’s mental wellbeing during the coronavirus restrictions. The new People and Nature Survey (PANS) developed by Natural England provided some useful data. Building on some of our previous research, the survey also allowed us to compare how longer-term physical and psychological relationship with nature, and shorter-term visits and noticing of nature were associated with wellbeing – and as human and nature’s wellbeing is rarely considered together, pro-nature behaviours. The research has now been published in the Journal of Public Mental Health and available to download here.

Noticing nature matters

PANS asked several thousand members of the public questions about how connected they are to nature, how often they visit natural spaces and how much they notice nature. It found that visits to nature had increased by 40%, noticing nature had increased by 74%. The survey also collected information on pro-nature conservation behaviours and several wellbeing measures: happiness, loneliness, life satisfaction and the sense that one’s life is worthwhile.

First of all, we analysed the extent to which these wellbeing variables and pro-nature conservation behaviours are predicted by people’s long-term relationship with nature: the time spent in nature over the past 12 months and nature connectedness. We found that both more time spent in nature and a greater connection to nature were positively related to several positive outcomes: life satisfaction, happiness, a worthwhile life and pro-nature conservation behaviours – with noticing nature tending to contribute a little more to the outcomes.

We then turned our attention to experiences of nature during the pandemic restrictions. Our analyses revealed that both the number of recent visits to green spaces and increases in noticing nature were associated with increases in life satisfaction, happiness and the sense of one’s life being worthwhile. The more people spent time in and noticed nature during the pandemic, the greater their wellbeing – with noticing nature tending to contribute a little more than visits. Increases in noticing nature, but not visits, were also positively associated with pro-nature conservation behaviours and greater loneliness. So noticing nature makes you lonely!? Nope, as a cross-sectional survey the direction of this relationship is unknown, rather than increased noticing of nature increasing loneliness, the findings could well reflect that as loneliness increases people turn to nature and spend more time noticing it, buffering the effect of reduced social connectedness that has been found in other research.

Finally, we examined all of these variables together so that we could better understand the relationship between wellbeing and the quality of long-term and short-term relationships with nature. Interestingly, recent nature visits didn’t account for any increase in wellbeing over and above that caused by long-term visits. However, recent increases in noticing nature were associated with a greater sense of having a worthwhile life and more pro-nature conservation behaviours.

These results highlight the importance of having a long-term relationship with nature, but also suggest that recent increases in noticing nature can bring psychological benefits regardless of one’s historical relationship with nature. This finding is supported by our previous empirical research that found prompting people to notice nature led to significant improvements in mental health.

Another finding to emphasise is the benefit to pro-nature conservation behaviours. Higher levels of pro-nature behaviours were best explained by higher levels of nature connectedness and noticing nature. This supports our previous work on the Green Care Code.

The results confirm emerging and important findings: (2020 Study & 2021 Study) that connection to and simple engagement with nature bring benefits over and above those derived from simply spending time in nature. As well as spending time in nature, we also need to tune into nature and develop greater nature connectedness if we want to maximise the benefits to our own, and nature’s wellbeing – perhaps even more so during the pandemic.

Richardson, M. & Hamlin, I. (2021) Nature Engagement for Human and Nature’s Wellbeing during the Corona Pandemic. Journal of Public Mental Health. DOI: 10.1108/JPMH-02-2021-0016

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Nature’s Recovery for a New Relationship with Nature

Today the Environment Secretary, George Eustice, set out plans for nature’s recovery. The full speech on amending the Environment Bill to require an additional legally binding target for species abundance is available here. The actions set out in the speech to restore nature are an important step. Getting the details right will help nature’s recovery, but can also deliver benefits for human wellbeing through creating a closer relationship with nature.

The Environment Secretary noted how the events of the last year have led people to appreciate the difference that nature makes to our lives more than ever before. There is an increased awareness of the link between our own health and that of the planet. Sadly, the UK is one of the most nature depleted countries and that is strongly related to lower levels of nature connectedness and wellbeing.

In our upcoming paper on people’s engagement with nature during the pandemic we found that the increase in noticing nature explained wellbeing to a greater extent than the increase in visits to nature. Indeed, when people are prompted to notice nature it can deliver clinically significant benefits to mental health. We also know that people have an inherent ability to spot greater biodiversity – and that brings positive emotions. Nature’s recovery will create more nature to notice. And if that nature is visible it can help build a closer relationship with nature that is good for wellbeing – and encourages pro-nature behaviours too.

Nature’s recovery: More nature to notice

The speech stated the need to work on habitats in both protected sites and the wider countryside. Clearly, that scale is essential to deliver nature’s recovery. However, there was little on the places where people live, urban areas and schools for example. Corridors to bring nature from the wider countryside to people could do great things for wellbeing.

The renewed emphasis on nature’s recovery and call for creative public policy thinking does allow opportunities to maximise the benefits. It would be great to see:

1 – Everyday biodiversity to unite human and nature’s wellbeing – bringing visible wildlife to the places people live to foster pro-nature behaviour, nature connectedness and wellbeing.

2 – The design of urban spaces to foster meaningful engagement with the abundance of nature on everyone’s doorstep. Design to prompt people to notice, engage and care for nature.

3 – New woodlands as new spaces for meaningful engagement and delivery of nature based social prescriptions.

4 – Creation of a life-long relationship with nature – bringing nature’s recovery into secondary schools to address the ‘teenage dip’ and support adolescent wellbeing.

Building back greener can help create a new human-nature relationship through delivering nature everywhere for everyone.

 

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