The good things in urban nature: An extended framework for nature engagement

Our latest article in Landscape and Urban Planning provides a thematic analysis of the good things in urban nature. The results are pioneering in that they begin to define the components of urban green space that have most value and meaning for urban citizens. I then combined the themes with the pathways to nature connectedness to produce a matrix of ‘micro-activities’. This provides a framework to inform many nature engagement activities, from social media content to urban planning – more on that later.

The research was part of the £1.3 million Natural Environment Research Council funded project IWUN: Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature. The Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby led the work package that developed the smartphone intervention that prompted users to notice the good things in urban nature each day for 7 days. We found that increasing connection to urban nature can bring clinically significant improvements in quality of life for those with living with a mental health difficulty – and bring significant benefits to all adults.

This research moves beyond our previous work by identifying common themes in the good things in nature that led to clinically significant improvements in wellbeing in an urban environment. Qualitative analysis of participants’ observations about the good things in urban green spaces revealed a number of themes.

The good things in urban nature

The dominant theme which emerged was participants’ wonder at encountering animals in day-to-day urban settings. Within this theme of appreciating urban nature, a large number of observations in the study related to the enjoyment of hearing bird song.

The second largest theme was that of expressing gratitude for street trees. The third most represented theme was the awe participants expressed at dramatic skies and views from high up looking down over the city. Minor themes included: green planting amongst built space; noticing flowering plants; mentions of water; natures beauty; feelings of awe and calm; . Of the main themes, it is interesting that biotic themes (e.g. Wonder at encountering animals; Gratitude for trees) had greater representation than abiotic themes (e.g. awe at dramatic skies and views). This may be indicative of our ‘biophilia’.

The good things in nature data and themes generated provide an insight to what people appreciate in urban nature. Therefore, when setting out to engage people with nature it is sensible to highlight them. Further, the pathways to nature connectedness provide a theoretical background and framework of the types of activity in nature required to improve nature connectedness. The themes and the pathways can be combined as each pathway activity can be developed around a theme of the good things in nature. Such matrix of themed activities can inform specific efforts to connect people to urban nature.

Indicative matrix of micro-activities from combining the good things in nature themes and pathways to nature connectedness to provide the micro-foundations for nature connectedness and inform activity programming, nature engagement media content, intervention and urban design. From https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2019.103687
Senses Emotions Beauty Meaning Compassion
Wonder at encountering wildlife Look out for and listen to wildlife Find wildlife that prompts joy and calm Note the beauty of wildlife. Consider what encountering wildlife means to you. Do something to care for wildlife
Gratitude for trees Take a moment to notice trees Find an awesome and calming tree Note the beauty of trees. Think about what trees mean to you. Do you have a favourite tree? Do something to care for trees.
Awe at dramatic skies and views Look up and out at the sky and views Notice how you feel as the sky changes. Different skies, different feelings? Take a moment to notice the beauty of clouds. What does your favourite view mean to you? What do the changing skies mean for nature and wildlife? How does nature change a view?
Green planting amongst built space Notice everyday nature in urban spaces. Compared to built spaces, how do green spaces feel? Notice the beauty of natural forms within the city. Use metaphors to describe plants in the city. What do plants in the city do for wildlife?
Flowering plants Take a moment to notice flowers How do flowers make you feel? Capture the beauty of flowers in words, images or music. Do different flowers mean different things? What do flowers do for wildlife?
Water Look at the movement of water, listen Notice how still and running water make you feel. Does the beauty of water depend on light? How can you use water to communicate a thought or idea? What can you do to help stop water pollution?
Nature’s beauty Find beautiful sounds in nature. What emotions does the beauty of nature bring? Why is nature beautiful? What does nature’s beauty symbolise? Can nature’s beauty bring care for nature?
Feelings/Emotions Look and listen for nature that brings calm and joy Complete a tick list of emotions in nature rather than wildlife Emotions are natural, are they beautiful? Does nature help regulate your emotions? How does it feel to do good for nature?

The matrix of 40 activities are indicative suggestions generated from combining the data themes and pathways. They aren’t intended to be exhaustive and provide example prompts for a wide range of nature connectedness focussed activities. Content for the matrix can be adapted or revised from differing perspectives such as mental health or urban planning through consulting experts and practitioners in those domains.

Given the basis in the pathways to nature connectedness and the good things in urban nature, the approach can be used for a variety of purposes around engaging adults with urban nature. For example, they can inform activity programming (especially when combined with a range of arts from photography to creative writing), social-media content for nature engagement and the design of green spaces.  As an example, an activity could be focussed on water, with elements that draw out the deeper relationships of the compassion and meaning pathways not seen when simply noticing the good things. The meaning theme provides a prompt for deeper reflection on why the good things in urban nature are inherently good, using metaphors to communicate these ideas. Therefore the water-meaning intersection provides a prompt for those involved in cultural programming in urban areas with access to water. Or, from the perspective of the urban planner or designer the water-meaning intersection provides a prompt to allow space for cultural programming close to water or specific infrastructure (e.g. social spaces, art installations, boardwalks) designed to to afford the activities and encourage deeper relationships between people and nature.

The results are pioneering in that they begin to define the components of urban green space that have most value and meaning for urban citizens; values and meanings that may strongly underpin an individual’s mental health given the results from associated research. Through combining the themes with the pathways to nature connectedness, the paper provides matrix of activities to prompt activity programming, nature engagement media content, interventions and urban design. Given the benefits to wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviour, it is important to align the aspects of urban nature that people enjoy with activity programming, intervention design, policy makers’ and town planners’ views of how best to design and develop cities.

 

 

This blog is based on excerpts from a post-print of the published article available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2019.103687

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Clinically Significant Improvements in Mental Health through Connecting with Urban Nature

In an increasingly urbanised world where mental health disorders have affected 30% of the global population, simple nature based solutions are often overlooked. Our recent paper in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health shows how increasing connection to urban nature can bring clinically significant improvements in quality of life for those with living with a mental health difficulty – and bring significant benefits to all adults. All through simply noticing the good things in nature – an approach I first developed at the University of Derby a few years ago.

The recently published research evaluated a smartphone based version. This allowed it to prompt users to notice the good things in urban nature each day for 7 days. In a randomised controlled trial, the app prompted 582 adults, including adults with a common mental health problem (n= 148), to notice the good things about urban nature (intervention condition) or built spaces (active control). There were statistically significant and sustained improvements in wellbeing at one-month follow-up. This improvement in wellbeing was partly explained by significant increases in nature connectedness and relaxed positive affect. This study provides the first controlled experimental evidence that noticing the good things about urban nature has strong clinical potential as a wellbeing intervention and social prescription.

The research was part of the £1.3 million Natural Environment Research Council funded project IWUN: Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature. The Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby led the work package that developed the smartphone intervention. To help engagement users interacted with the app through a ‘conversation’ with a ‘chatbot’ – the users companion for the week. The design operationalises some of the Behavioural Insights Team ‘Behavior Change For Nature: Behavioral Science Toolkit‘  strategies. It motivates through positive emotions, it socialises through reciprocity (social media sharing), it makes things easy through humanised message, simple messages and timely prompts.

The app also tracked the user’s time and use of green spaces using about 1000 ‘geofences’ in the city, reminding them to notice the good things in nature when near green spaces as most people spend the vast majority of their day indoors. The app also recorded what the user was doing, who they were with and the amount of biodiversity in the green spaces. This data will help show the links between the type of green spaces, biodiversity and well-being and is still being analysed or on its way to publication.

Back to the findings. The research highlights the need for engagement with nature in everyday life. We found that people who spent less time outdoors in the last year improved more on nature connectedness. Further, those who had lower baseline nature connectedness scores improved more. Overall, this is supportive of targeting those who spend little time outside and provides a simple engagement strategy.

Similarly, we found that those who had spent more time outdoors as a child showed a greater improvement in nature connectedness scores. There is some discussion that childhood exposure to nature is important for nature connectedness as an adult, but there have been no longitudinal studies to evidence this, so this is an interesting finding and perhaps evidence of a ‘latent nature connectedness’ – we know childhood connection drops sharply in adolescence. It is possible that a childhood connection with nature is reignited by noticing the good things in nature, this then results in a renewed nature connectedness and subsequent wellbeing benefits. There’s also the potential for use to help address the ‘teenage dip‘ in connection.

Looking at the mechanisms for the benefits in mental health, increased nature connectedness (25% higher sustained for 1 month) was a predictor of increased wellbeing in users of the app. This supports the growing importance of the psychological construct of nature connectedness as a new paradigm for wellbeing. In addition, increased relaxed positive affect was a significant predictor of the improvement in wellbeing in the green space condition.

This study was the first to use a multidimensional measure of positive affect, which distinguishes low arousal/positive valence affects (such as relaxed and safe positive affects) from high arousal/positive valence affects (such as activated positive affects) as an outcome measure for a nature connectedness intervention. Low arousal positive affects, such as relaxation, have been found to uniquely predict life satisfaction, depression, wellbeing, mindfulness, anxiety, and stress beyond high arousal positive affects, such as activation. The inclusion of the Types of Positive Affect Scale revealed a unique finding: an intervention which increased nature connectedness and relaxed positive affect predicted increased wellbeing. The finding that relaxed positive affect and nature connectedness were predictors of increased wellbeing is also consistent with our affect regulation account of wellbeing through nature, which states that low arousal positive affect such as relaxation and high arousal activated positive affect, such as excitement, can offer unique inputs to wellbeing through nature connectedness.

In sum, this study provides the first controlled experimental research evidence that a nature-based prescription can be effective in an urban environment. Prompting simple everyday engagement with urban nature can help improve nature connection and wellbeing. This can be done using a portable, widely accessible and cost-effective smartphone app, and is therefore of interest to public health organisations seeking solutions to mental health issues in an increasingly urbanised society.

 

 

McEwan, K., Richardson, M., Sheffield, D., Ferguson, F. J., & Brindley, P. (2019). A Smartphone App for Improving Mental Health through Connecting with Urban Nature. International journal of environmental research and public health16(18), 3373.

Richardson, M. & Sheffield, D. (2017). Three good things in nature: Noticing nearby nature brings sustained increases in connection with nature. Psyecology.

Richardson, M., Hallam, J., & Lumber, R. (2015). One thousand good things in nature: Aspects of nearby nature associated with improved connection to nature. Environmental Values24(5), 603-619.

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An Experiment with a Bird

Over the past few years the Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby has been focussed on delivering several research projects. Over the summer we found a moment to pause, update our pathways guidance (see below) and plan a team photo. For a group photo we wanted an image that prompted reflection on human-nature relationships, but was also a bit of fun. We could have gone out into nature, but our research shows contact and connection are different – independent and additive. Moving beyond contact to a close relationship with nature is important for human wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours.

Our new group photo was inspired by Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. At first sight this can seem like an odd choice. There are three reasons, two are simple, and the third requires a little more discussion. Firstly, Joseph Wright was from Derby, so is the group. Second, it’s more interesting (and enjoyable to be a part of!) than a standard group photo – it’s an experiment with a wooden bird. Third, in many ways the painting is about the human relationship with nature.

Members of the Nature Connectedness Research Group

Joseph Wright was from Derby, working at a time of scientific enlightenment – a period marked by an emphasis on the scientific method and reductionism. The reductionist scientific method focuses on minute and quantifiable factors with straightforward explanations of the data being sought. While it is an objective and informative approach, it should be remembered that it can miss dynamic and complex connections present in natural systems – we can’t measure and control every variable in a complex system. Some argue that the enlightenment and reductionist scientific method led to a separation of humanity from nature. Further, the painting was completed in 1768 towards the start of the Industrial Revolution, the start of unprecedented use of natural resources and fossil fuels. It is a time of increasing urbanicity and key changes to the human relationship with nature.

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump shows people gathered to observe an air pump experiment into the nature of air and its ability to support life. The painting shows a cockatiel panicking, perhaps dying, as the air is the pump withdraws the air from the vessel. The witnesses display various emotions, from understandable distress to fascination. The painting reflects a certain type of relationship with nature and the natural world. A relationship of enquiry and knowledge where scientific curiosity overcomes concern for the bird – nature.

The nature of our planet’s atmosphere and impact on all life is a key concern now, a new relationship with nature is needed for a sustainable future. The Nature Connectedness Research Group studies our emotional connection to nature and the benefits to wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. We have replaced the bird with an artistic representation of nature, the type of pursuit that can help build a connection with nature, for the artist or the viewer. The photograph also includes one of our main research tools, a laptop, which adopts a natural symbol for its brand, just one way that the meaning of nature has changed in our lives and a symbol of the technology that defines us more and more. You might also spot some of the applications of our research, such as the National Trust 50 Things leaflet.

Our new pathways postcard – Let nature be your story

There are many types of relationship with nature, both sustainable and not, and we’ve recently refreshed the guidance on the positive types of relationship identified in our pathways to nature connectedness research in a new postcard (PDF). We’ve also produced a short video to help explain and illustrate the pathways. These help explain the types of activity to foster to improve nature connectedness. They provide an applied framework for those designing programmes, or places, to improve human-nature connectedness – bringing about the benefits to wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours.

For the Nature Connectedness Research Group our story is nature, let nature be your story.

 

 

 

Thank you to Geoffrey Shek and Jay Lawrence for the photography, and to the Dolphin Inn in Derby for the room.

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The Teenage Dip in Nature Connection and Youth Climate Strikes

Earlier this year our new population measure of nature connectedness revealed a sharp dip in nature connection from 10 years of age, reaching a low between 13 and 18, with a slow recovery to the adult population mean at around 30 years old – see the chart below and blog. The measure was developed and tested through use in the existing omnibus survey the MENE survey, which has accredited National Statistic status in the UK. Independent research by the RSPB and Exeter has found a similar profile.

This ‘teenage dip’ can seem at odds with the youth climate strikes that have been hugely successful in bringing urgent attention to the climate crisis. With the youth of today being deeply concerned about environmental issues, how can they also be disconnected from nature? There are two key factors. First, the different focus of the climate strikes and nature connectedness. Second, the difference between population means and activists.

Nature Connectedness across the lifespan

So, let’s look at the focus of each. Greta Thunberg’s school strike is ‘to protest against the lack of action on the climate crisis’ (fridaysforfuture.org). Inspired by Greta Thunberg the UK Student Climate Network’s mission also focuses on action against climate change. Rightly so, U.N. WMO figures show global temperatures are currently on course for a 3-5 degrees Celsius rise by 2100, and it could be higher. Yet many still use the 2C target when explaining the consequences. It’s difficult to know what a 4 degree warmer world would be like, but it could well be the vast majority of humanity would need to live north of London – with insufficient land for food. This situation has been known about for many years, but very little meaningful action has been taken and a UKSCN demand is to communicate the reality.

Nature connectedness is a psychological construct that describes how close an individual’s relationship with nature is – how much they enjoy nature and its beauty, how important it is to them, whether they feel part of nature and if they treat nature with respect. Nature connection leads to pro-environmental behaviours and correlates well with ecological concern – the highly connected are likely to be more concerned about climate change (and have better mental well-being).

So, there’s a clear link, but some key differences in focus. These are highlighted well by looking at the content of Greta Thunberg’s powerful and effective speeches. Nearly 5000 words from www.fridaysforfuture.org/greta-speeches produces the word cloud below. Amongst the most frequent words (35 to 11 uses) are climate, people, crisis, emissions, children, future, countries, leaders and carbon. The words nature, wildlife and biodiversity do not appear, although there are six references to extinction.

Word cloud of Greta Thunberg’s speeches

By way of comparison the word cloud below shows 5000 recent words from this blog. The most frequent words (168 to 11 uses) are nature, connectedness, relationship, connection, human, research, people, behaviours, sustainable and future. Climate and biodiversity have 8 uses, wildlife 7.

Word cloud of nature connectedness blogs

The youth climate strikes rightly focuses on the threat to their future and the need for change to reduce carbon emissions. Nature connection is about our relationship with nature – important as the current climate and biodiversity crises stem from a failed relationship with nature and part of the change required is a new relationship, one that increases pro-nature behaviours and can help lead to a new concept of a ‘good life’. The climate strikes are about the threat to our future, nature connection helps describe what a future relationship with the natural world needs to look like.

There’s a need for language that demands action and language that builds a new relationship with nature for a sustainable future – perhaps they need to be different voices, but not competing. This has been highlighted recently by the response to an XR poster that implies a connection to nature is less impacting and humiliating. 

Nature connectedness also helps describe how we’ve ended up in this critical situation. The pathways to nature connectedness highlight the positive relationships with nature, and reveal the negative relationships that have exploited nature to create our modern world – utility, dominion and fear. Nature connectedness should be part of the new curriculum demanded by the UK Student Climate Network.

The second factor that explains the mismatch between the teenage dip in nature connection and the youth climate strikes comes through population means and activists. The dip from 64 at 9 years old to 47 at 14 is in the mean level of nature connection, there are still highly connected teenagers. In previous work we found 46% of children have a low connection and 18% a strong connection with nature. It may well be those supporting the climate action are part of this group, but we don’t have the data to know. However, because of the differences above there won’t be a perfect correlation between connection and climate action. Further, despite the large and impressive numbers at many climate strikes, it represents a small proportion of the teenage population. There are increasingly levels of concern about the environmental crises, but most are not acting on that concern. By increasing connection to nature it’s likely that there would be more people supporting climate action and undertaking pro-environmental behaviours.

So why the teenage dip? Again there’s been little specific research, only recently have a number of studies identified the dip in UK, Canadian, Australian and Chinese populations. However, we know that adolescence is a time of many developmental changes, including the development of self-identity. Identity formation sees childhood characteristics merge with emerging adolescent traits, and consists of a series of stages alongside coping with, for example, physical growth, group acceptance, love, and career choices. It may be that during this time nature, and one’s connection with it, loses importance (there’s a lot going on), but also that the climate movement is a group some (including the less connected) identify with and want to be part of.

Let’s hope more join those demanding climate action, to help bring about the urgent action required and also to help create a vision of new relationship with the natural world where a good life is defined by living in greater harmony with nature, rather than consuming the resources produced by exploiting and damaging the environment.

 

 

 

 

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National Parks Landscapes Review: A Meaningful Relationship with Nature

The final report of the National Parks and AONBs Landscapes Review has been published and several elements within it are highly relevant to nature connectedness research and application. For example, the report states that currently ‘The purpose to connect people to nature, and its execution, is too weak’ and proposal 7 states that ‘We need our national landscape bodies to lead the charge in connecting more people to nature’. To do this there needs to be a clear vision of what connection people to nature is – is it simply visits? Or is that connection a long-term relationship for human and nature’s wellbeing?

The good news is that the Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby has developed a framework to connect people with nature and we’ve applied that nationally – and further afield. The final report also cites our work with The Wildlife Trusts on 30 Days Wild, where we found that the least connected to nature benefit most, which motivates the need to reach out and engage with those people yet to develop a close relationship with nature. Importantly, those benefits are to both people and nature – wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours.

Let’s look at some of the proposals in the report that link through to nature connectedness research.

Proposal 1 includes a stronger purpose for nature and beauty driven by a new National Landscapes Service. Our research has shown that engaging with nature’s beauty is both a pathway to becoming connected with nature and a route to wellbeing. Further, our work has shown that the public can spot biodiversity and greater biodiversity gives more nature (and beauty) to notice.

The National Landscapes Service (Proposal 25) would ‘Promote consistent, high quality standards in our special places, including overseeing a new professional ranger service and visitor experience’ and ‘Ensure best practices become common everywhere’. This should include an understanding of what a connection with nature is, the difference to contact with nature and how to achieve it using carefully designed engagement activities.

Proposal 8 (supported by the Proposal 13 ranger service) is ‘A night under the stars in a national landscape for every child’. This has made the headlines, but one night doesn’t make a relationship. To meet the aim to connect more people with nature a one-off experience won’t work. It could provide a catalyst, and done well, with a follow-up programme, could be used to develop a closer relationship with nature. This proposal needs to be based on the latest research evidence, rather than falling into traditional approaches that haven’t prevented the current environmental emergency and disconnected population.

The proposal continues: “They should learn how landscapes have inspired generations of artists, poets and musicians. They themselves should be inspired by the lives of their forebears, who have forged this countryside and whose very existence is written into the cultural landscape, and above all they should learn how they too can pick up the baton of nurturing and enhancing what they have inherited. With help from a new National Landscapes Service, we would like to see national landscapes work with the many organisations already involved in this area to provide a clear, consistent offer for meaningful visit that we think should include an overnight stay. It would be a chance for children to meet others from communities they may not normally meet, to learn about the nature that we all rely on, and even enjoy the thrill of a night under the stars.”

There’s a focus on learning when there’s little evidence that knowledge and education deliver the over arching aim of a connection with nature. Rather than a focus on learning, there should be a focus on creating art, poetry and music – through noticing nature, its beauty and telling the story of the meaning and feelings it brings. Rather than a focus on learning the history, help nurture and enhance the present – caring for nature is a pathway to connection. Create a new culture of celebrating our place in nature.

Rather than ‘meaningful’ visit, create a meaningful relationship. Once again there’s a proposal to ‘learn about nature’, instead, bring the enjoyment and wonder of the natural world to the fore. Find stars in the everyday, in the cobwebs, in the leaves, in the birdsong – in the nature children will find everyday at home.

Proposal 10 is for ‘Landscapes that cater for and improve the nation’s health and wellbeing’.  We know that nature is good for people; we’re no different from other species in needing the habitat we evolved to live in. However, this proposal can link through to the aim to connect people to nature. Emerging research shows that a connection with nature and visiting nature bring independent and additive benefits – and the signs are connection is more important than contact.

The proposal goes on to suggest ‘a new role for our national landscapes in helping the health of our nation. At a local level, they should all establish strong relationships with local public health teams, clinical commissioning groups and social prescribing link workers’. Health and wellbeing depends on everyday behaviours. For those local to national parks this is fine, but nature should be part of everyone’s life, everyday. For example, we’ve developed a green prescription that delivered clinically significant increases in mental health through noticing everyday urban nature.

In sum, the current environmental emergencies show that for a sustainable future we need a new relationship with nature. So, it’s great that the final report highlights the need to connect more people with nature. However, the aim of that connection needs to be defined and the route to it evidence based. Whether it’s humans or nature, one night doesn’t make a relationship. And we also know that learning facts and figures doesn’t make a close relationship with nature. Successful and long-lasting relationships are based on noticing nature and its beauty, emotions, meaningful experiences and care – the pathways to nature connection. For success in reconnecting people with nature through national parks there is a need to move beyond one-off experiences and visits, to evidence based interventions that have delivered improved nature connection. National parks and AONBs can perhaps kick-start and boost these relationships , but the experiences cannot be isolated and the national parks should help build an everyday relationships with nature as part of a wider programme.

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A Close Relationship with Nature: A Basic Human Right for a Sustainable Future?

The human relationship with the rest of nature matters for our well-being, yet the climate and environment emergencies show that the human relationship with the rest of nature is broken. To fix it we need a new more connected relationship that recognises that we are part of nature. This is a relationship that will bring both pro-nature behaviours and improved mental wellbeing – a good life.

Sir Bob Watson was lead scientist of the IPBES landmark health-check of life on Earth – the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystems published this year. The report showed that nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history. In an interview earlier this year he said we need to ask how do we become more in tune with nature? What makes us happy? How do we relate to nature?

These are the right questions to ask as 2019 research provides evidence for a causal link between a close relationship with nature and pro-nature behaviours. The science of nature connectedness has delivered a number of key insights in 2019 and can help answer those questions:

  • What makes us happy? Naturally, there are many things, but systematic review evidence from 2019 shows that nature connectedness brings two key types of happiness – feeling good and functioning well – to levels above accepted benchmarks.
  • How do we become more in tune with nature? Here we could ask, how do we become more connected to nature? Our intervention research (again from 2019) shows we can tune in through simply noticing the good things in nature, through the senses. And doing so make us feel significantly better.
  • How do we relate to nature? A connected relationship with nature is based upon finding beauty in nature, experiences in nature that evoke positive emotions and bring meaning, and activities that involve caring for nature – the pathways to nature connectedness.

We need a closer relationship with nature in order to save nature. A closer relationship with nature helps bring a happy and meaningful life. With these essential benefits should there be a basic human right to a close relationship with nature?

How to find a positive relationship with nature in the city?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights doesn’t mention nature or the environment. The first principle of the United Nations Rio Declaration on the Environemt (1992) states that “Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature”. The principle notes the human role in sustainability and ties human health to living in harmony with nature. Of course, productive living is a necessary part of life, but entitlement to a close relationship with nature is clear. The key is a sustainable balance between them. Something our pathways to nature connection research revealed – the activities in nature needed for a close relationship differed from those that have exploited nature, built our modern world and caused the environmental crisis.

A close relationship with nature requires a healthy natural world

In another 2019 paper, Jane Hurly and Gordon J. Walker from the University of Alberta have argued that the human need for nature connectedness is a basic psychological need. They reviewed the compelling evidence of the benefits of nature connectedness and examined if it met published criteria for basic psychological needs.

Also from 2019, Alexia Barrable from the University of Dundee argues that nature connectedness should be a distinct goal of early childhood education. Alexia notes the focus on learning about the natural environment and spending time outdoors, but that the distinct construct of nature connectedness has not been considered in detail. Further research from 2019 shows that it’s not just young children. Evidence from the UK, Canada and China shows that we know children’s relationship with nature breaks down from 10 years of age, taking 20 years to recover. This suggests that nature connectedness, living in harmony with nature for a sustainable future, should be a goal of educational institutions from early childhood, through adolescence and into adulthood.

So if there were a basic human right to a closer relationship with nature how we would get there? We’ve often thought of our pathways to nature connectedness in terms of activities for individuals and small groups, but recently we’ve been thinking about how the pathways can inform societal changes that could allow and prompt the types of activities and values linked to a closer relationship with nature.

Another 2019 paper starts to consider this issue. As an editorial for a special issue, it’s limited in scope, but the recommendations give a flavour of thinking that we’re currently developing in other work. Our Frontiers special issue, One Health: The Well-being Impacts of Human-Nature Relationships,  responds to two interrelated issues confronting humanity today: the health and well-being of populations and the state of the natural environment.

We discuss the ways to improve the human-nature relationship through interventions, campaigns, activities, curricula, green infrastructure and urban design. Bringing together artists, planners, designers, and researchers to create places that afford a connection to nature. There’s scope across the full range of policy areas and at various leverage points, for now examples are provided in the recommendations distilled from the research in the special issue:

  • Everyday experiences of nature matter. Provide green spaces, close to home and work, with opportunities and prompts for people across the lifespan to notice nature and its beauty.
  • Encourage a broader range of seasonal experiences in nature, of various durations, at various times and calling on insight from a range of approaches to human-nature relationships (e.g., Stoic and Buddhist Traditions; nature connectedness).
  • Provide habitats for a variety of wildlife. Biodiversity matters for human health. Micro-variables such as birds, plants, wildlife, and native species create a bond between people and natural places.
  • Provide nature based therapeutic environments.
  • For those with limited access to nature, provide imagery and VR alternatives.

2019 has seen some breakthrough nature connectedness research and as a measurable psychological construct it provides a great focal point – a basic psychological need that captures the human-nature relationship. Especially as we have pathways and interventions that can improve nature connectedness – with causal links through to pro-nature behaviours and mental well-being.

So, should there be a basic human right to a close relationship with nature? The evidence is clear; the well-being of future populations and the planet depends on closer, positive and sustainable human-nature relationships. We also need a new concept of what constitutes a good life, one that recognises the vital role of nature to human life. The first principle of the United Nations Rio Declaration (1992) already captures that need for harmony, but human rights don’t cover the human relationship with the natural world – despite nature being essential for human life. And of course, a right to a close relationship with nature would require a healthy natural world.

 

 

Hurly, J., & Walker, G. J. (2019). Nature in our lives: Examining the human need for nature relatedness as a basic psychological need. Journal of Leisure Research, 1-21.

Barrable, A. (2019). The Case for Nature Connectedness as a Distinct Goal of Early Childhood Education. International Journal of Early Childhood6(2), 59-70.

Mackay, C. M., & Schmitt, M. T. (2019). Do people who feel connected to nature do more to protect it? A meta-analysis. Journal of Environmental Psychology65, 101323.

McEwan, K., Richardson, M., Sheffield, D., Ferguson, F. J., & Brindley, P. (2019). A Smartphone App for Improving Mental Health through Connecting with Urban Nature. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health16(18), 3373.

Pritchard, A., Richardson, M., Sheffield, D., & McEwan, K. (2019). The relationship between nature connectedness and eudaimonic well-being: A meta-analysis. Journal of Happiness Studies, 1-23.

Richardson, M., Hunt, A., Hinds, J., Bragg, R., Fido, D., Petronzi, D., … & White, M. (2019). A Measure of Nature Connectedness for Children and Adults: Validation, Performance, and Insights. Sustainability, 11(12), 3250.

Brymer, E., Freeman, D. E. L., & Richardson, M. (2019). One Health: The wellbeing impacts of human-nature relationships. Frontiers in psychology10, 1611.

Krettenauer, T., Wang, W., Jia, F., & Yao, Y. (2019). Connectedness with nature and the decline of pro-environmental behavior in adolescence: A comparison of Canada and China. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 101348.

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The link between Nature Connectedness and Pro-Nature Behaviours

The link between nature connectedness and human well-being has been made in a couple of systematic reviews, most recently in our paper, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies. Now we have a meta-analysis showing the link between nature connectedness and pro-environmental behaviours (PEBs). This was published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology (PDF version).

Caroline Mackay and Michael Schmitt from Simon Fraser University in Canada gathered together 92 research studies involving over 27,000 people and found “compelling evidence for a strong and robust association between nature connection and PEB”. Adjusting for publication bias, they also found a significant causal effect of nature connection on PEB. They concluded that nature connection is a promising avenue for promoting PEB.

So, we now have good evidence that nature connectedness is a route to both human and nature’s wellbeing – and remember nature connectedness is the strength of a person’s relationship with nature, it’s not simply visiting and being in nature. At the University of Derby we’ve developed specific interventions to improve nature connectedness and the pathways framework to help people design their own, moving beyond traditional knowledge and learning focussed approaches.

Mackay and Schmitt’s research had robust inclusion criteria and defined nature connection as the sense of “oneness” with nature and the studies included in the analysis used standard nature connectedness scales and related emotional connection scales. They defined PEB as actions that would likely benefit the environment, measured by self-reports of PEB, intentions to engage in PEB, or observed behaviour recorded in a laboratory. They also coded private or public sphere behaviours, together with the different measures of PEB, including observed behaviour – the results provide good evidence that nature connection relates to actual behaviour.

The correlational part of the study could not provide evidence of a causal effect of nature connection on behaviour, so they also looked at empirical manipulations too. They found a publication bias in favour of studies with larger and more positive effects. However, they addressed this bias by including unpublished studies. They still found a significant causal effect of nature connectedness on PEB.

The causal effects in the analysis of experimental studies were weaker than expected given the relatively large effect sizes in the correlational data. The authors explain this through the discrepancy between how nature connectedness is measured and how it is manipulated. The experimental manipulations of nature connectedness often focussed on contact with or exposure to nature, yet from our pathways to nature connectedness we know it’s more than exposure – it is increased through sensory contact, meaningful experiences involving emotions, beauty and care for nature – this can be achieved by simple noticing the good things in nature.

Pro-nature Behaviour

It’s interesting to note that there’s no discussion of the difference between PEB and pro-nature conservation behaviours – that is positive actions with impact on local wildlife versus PEBs that are often positive inactions that indirectly impact wildlife via reduction of carbon footprint and resource use. There is a huge disparity in awareness, coverage and psychological research into climate change and biodiversity loss. Yet, “Only by addressing both ecosystems and climate do we stand a chance of safeguarding a stable planet for humanity’s future on Earth,” Prof Johan Rockström, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. In some on-going work we know pro-environmental and pro-nature conservation behaviours are related, but different from a behavioural perspective. Surprisingly, given the crisis of biodiversity loss we’ve been unable to find a scale focussed on pro-conservation behaviours, so we’ve developed one – the Pro-Conservation Behaviour Scale (ProCoBS) – which we’ll aim to publish and make available soon.

In sum, the Mackay and Schmitt research fills a key gap in the evidence to support the importance of nature connectedness through finding a significant causal effect of nature connection on PEB. It shows that nature connectedness is a route to nature’s wellbeing and  we have access to interventions and approaches to improving nature connectedness.

 

Mackay, C. M., & Schmitt, M. T. (2019). Do people who feel connected to nature do more to protect it? A meta-analysis. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 65, 101323.

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