The Nature Connection Handbook

The real-world application of the science of nature connection really matters – there’s an urgent need to connect more people, more fully with the rest of nature. With widespread recognition of the importance of a close relationship with nature, there has been growing use of nature connection principles and practices across a range of sectors, including environmental, mental health, social care, youth, arts and creative industries, local government, community, education, and business.

In addition to our work carrying out research, evaluation, and designing interventions, we regularly offer guidance and support to organisations who want to put the research into practice. To meet the increasing demand for help in the design and delivery of nature connection initiatives, we have created The Nature Connection Handbook: A Guide for Increasing People’s Connection with Nature – it’s free and you can download it here (the shortened URL for sharing is bit.ly/NatureConnectionHandbook.

The Nature Connection Handbook

The handbook is designed to be used by a wide range of organisations and individuals who have an interest in helping people grow closer to nature and offers an accessible summary of nature connection research and application, a framework and guidance for helping people improve their connection with nature, and examples of activities and initiatives that support and develop nature connection.

The need to transform the human-nature relationship has never been more important. People who feel closer to nature are happier and more satisfied with life and are more likely to take actions that help wildlife and the environment. This handbook will support those who are showing people new ways of relating to nature, prompting the kind of sensory and emotional engagement that leads to fundamental shifts in nature connectedness and mutual benefits for humans and nature.

 

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Nature Connection Design Ideas

The are many potential routes and stepping stones to a new relationship with nature. I find the creative application of nature connectedness research findings really exciting and, for me, it’s an essential part of the research process – work to understand a problem and provide solutions. There are many good examples where our research has been applied, but also unrealised ideas. This blog simply shares some of my ideas, some very recent, some may be impractical and others perhaps plain daft! But sharing and discussing ideas is often the catalyst for others, so here goes…

A key finding from our research is that simply noticing nature is an essential step to improving nature connectedness and thereby mental well-being and pro-nature behaviours. Yet most people don’t tend to notice nature. Then we’ve also found that the typical amount of time people spend in urban green spaces is just 4 minutes 36 seconds. There’s a need for places and spaces that prompt people to pause, notice and linger. There are several art installations that prompt people to sit and notice, such as “Skyspace” by James Turrell. The plan view of the ‘harbour’ below is simply two curved walls that allow the option of a roof or cover for those enjoyable rainy days. Positioned within an area with some trees and habitats, the overlapping curves create a simple entrance to the space. A space that invites people to sit and be harboured by the curves. To pause, away from those who continue to wander. Permission is given to notice nature.

The second version has a single entrance, like a tunnel towards a nest. To leave the wider world to a calmer place. Although simple, such spaces can be special. Too often there are no places to pause, or a bench is sited on the footpath itself, legs shuffle as others pass by. Create a space, a focal point and people will come. Such spaces also create great areas for green social prescribing.

Sometimes green spaces are limited. Simply passed through on route to some place else. How can the smallest green space provide the longest walk and more moments with nature? Through a labyrinth. Mazes require thought, can bring frustration, labyrinths are simply followed – all the better if created with wildlife in mind.

And of course the harbour and labyrinth can be combined. Sadly, how practical such spaces would be in public and urban areas is another matter. Just as they invite people to pause and linger to enjoy nature, they will invite people to linger and enjoy other things – but good design could perhaps mitigate such concerns.

I love the nature writing of Richard Jefferies (1848 – 1887), it is clear from his wonderful accounts of time lingering by fields and hedgerows just how much wildlife there was 150 years ago.

In Nature Near London Jefferies writes of numerous wildflowers and birds:

A certain road leading outwards from a suburb, enters at once among fields. It soon passes a thick hedge dividing a meadow from a cornfield, in which hedge is a spot where some bluebells may be found in spring … This meadow in June, for instance, when the buttercups are high, is one broad expanse of burnished gold. The most careless passer-by can hardly fail to cast a glance over acres of rich yellow. The furze, again, especially after a shower has refreshed its tint, must be seen by all. Where broom grows thickly, lifting its colour well into view, or where the bird’s-foot lotus in full summer overruns the thin grass of some upland pasture, the eye cannot choose but acknowledge it….The thick hedge mentioned is a favourite resort of blackbirds, and on a warm May morning, after a shower—they are extremely fond of a shower—half-a-dozen may be heard at once whistling in the elms… A pair of turtle-doves built in the same hedge one spring, and while resting on the gate by the roadside their “coo-coo” mingled with the song of the nightingale and thrush, the blackbird’s whistle, the chiff-chaff’s “chip-chip,” the willow-wren’s pleading voice, and the rustle of green corn as the wind came rushing (as it always does to a gateway).

And of numerous insects in Field and Hedgerow:

This forest land is marked by the myriads of insects that roam about it in the days of sunshine. Of all the million million heathbells—multiply them again by a million million more—that purple the acres of rolling hills, mile upon mile, there is not one that is not daily visited by these flying creatures. Countless and incalculable hosts of the yellow-barred hover-flies come to them; the heath and common, the moor and forest, the hedgerow and copse, are full of insects. They rise under foot, they rise from the spray brushed by your arm as you pass, they settle down in front of you—a rain of insects, a coloured shower. Legion is a little word for the butterflies; the dry pastures among the woods are brown with meadow-brown; blues and coppers float in endless succession

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to witness such scenes? A journey from the present, back 100 then 1000 years to see how a sterile landscape was once alive. An antidote to shifting baseline syndrome where each generation thinks the current state of nature is the norm. Of course this can be done with Augmented Reality headsets, but what about an AR window that overlays the past upon the present. A window on a popular route, where many pass to enjoy the landscape of today – but can witness the landscape nature intended. Of course, even if technically possible, a rewilded landscape would be a better solution!

A window onto more vibrant times

And now we wander into the more unusual corners of my mind, although this idea springs from a corner I occupy most evenings. I’m big fan of funk music and avid listener to funky.radio (24/7 funk with no adverts!). Funk music is always ‘on the one’ and nature connection is about being at ‘one with nature’, about ‘one health’ on ‘one planet’. It’s the story of the one. And funk music, especially Parliament Funkadelic has many fun stories and characters. From the Clones of Dr. Funkenstein to an alien UFO that visits Earth to steal the funk to save their dying world from its funklessness.

I expect engaging with nature has a bit of a tired and predictable image to many, from macs, wellies and binoculars to soft focus visions sat cross legged in a meadow. But a vibrant natural world is exciting, alive and full of characters and the story of the need for nature can be told in different ways to appeal to different audiences. So, inspired by Parliament’s Motor Booty Affair, an underwater concept album set in Atlantis, I created some characters to describe a funk themed walk on the walking and nature connection app, Go Jauntly. As you’re reading this and not walking, I’ve transferred the text of the walk onto the slides below.

 

In a vaguely similar vein of alternative framing, several years ago I imagined a nature themed celebrity lifestyle magazine.

A celebrity lifestyle magazine.

So, there we go, not a full ‘brain dump’ of ideas – i’ve omitted several, including my nature spoof aftershave ad and my emotion balancing contraption – a machine that illustrates how nature helps manage our moods. Hopefully, the ideas above will inspire some to create other ideas that become real and help bring people a little closer to nature.

 

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Going Global: Transforming the Human-Nature Relationship

It is recognised globally by organisations such as the UN and IPBES that the human relationship with nature is broken and an underlying cause of the environmental crises. The UN Secretary-General has noted the “urgent need to transform our relationship with nature“, and the Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity speaks of restoring our broken relationship with nature. Nature connectedness captures that relationship with nature; it can be measured and is known to relate to pro-nature and pro-environmental behaviours – while also benefiting wellbeing. Nature connection unites human and nature’s wellbeing. And people’s connection with nature is a key realm for interventions to transform sustainability. This global ambition may seem out of reach, but each of us can play a part.

The UN Environmental Programme report Making Peace with Nature suggests that the world can transform its relationship with nature and tackle the climate and biodiversity crises through bold policymaking. An important part of this is changing the mindsets and values that create the current relationship with nature. Yet, it’s not just about policymakers, one of the key messages from the report is that “Everyone has a role to play in … transforming humankind‘s relationship with nature” – rather than using human knowledge, ingenuity, technology and cooperation to transform nature. This needs to be supported by empowering people to express themselves and act responsibly towards the environment.

New visions of a close relationship with nature are needed from new sectors. And I’ve seen that those new visions often come from one or two individuals within an organisation. People who have a close relationship with nature can lead the way in how to integrate nature connection into everyday life. Indeed, such visions are listed as key areas for transformative change in the report: “Paradigms and visions of a good life: Move towards paradigms that emphasise relationships with people and nature over material consumption.”

A key message from the report is that improving our relationship with nature, understanding its value and putting that value at the heart of our decision-making means transforming social and economic systems. I’ve discussed systems change and material consumption in our paper on applying the pathways to nature connectedness at a societal scale. At its simplest, this involves fostering the relationships that build nature connection while moderating the damaging relationships at key leverage points.

Towards this goal of transformative change, work on the IPBES transformative change assessment into the underlying causes of biodiversity loss has begun. The assessment will identify factors in human society at both the individual and collective levels that may be leveraged to bring about transformative change for the conservation and restoration of biodiversity. This includes behavioural, social, cultural, economic, institutional, and technological dimensions.

The IPBES transformative change assessment will consider the human-nature relationship. International experts from every region of the world will contribute as authors to the assessment, which will be considered in 2024 by representatives of almost 140 countries that are part of IPBES. The assessment will set out options for policymakers based on the latest scientific evidence. I’m excited to have been invited to be a lead author on this assessment.

The assessment will present evidence for the need for transformative change and present visions of a sustainable world – for nature and people. In addition, the assessment will consider the specific challenges transformative change for nature and people presents, such as the range of differing worldviews and values related to biodiversity, nature and visions of a sustainable future.

The assessment will also consider how transformative change occurs, focusing on those changes that can be intentionally promoted, accelerated, and scaled to improve, maintain or restore healthy relationships with nature – to realise a sustainable world where biodiversity can thrive. This will need to consider how to overcome the challenges of achieving transformative change, why efforts to address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss have mostly been unsuccessful and the obstacles that impede transformative change. Before assessing the options to realise a sustainable world for nature and people.

These global initiatives set the scene for forging a new relationship with nature close to home. Pioneers can help in their areas of activity and influence. While many environmental initiatives focus on reduction and restriction, nature connection offers a positive vision of a nature-rich world that helps people feel good and live meaningful lives. The principles of nature connectedness provide an accessible and evidence-based approach that can be creatively applied across the public realm to help bring people closer to nature.

 

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Is attachment to things a barrier to caring for nature?

Nature is in crisis and human behaviour is the cause. The UN Secretary-General has summarised the situation starkly, “Humanity is waging war on nature”. There is global recognition that a sustainable future requires a new relationship with nature. While much research has studied broadly carbon-cutting pro-environmental behaviours, there has been far less research into habitat creating pro-nature conservation behaviours. Our latest research looks into the relationship between nature connectedness, engagement with nature’s beauty, nonattachment and dualism and how these factors explain pro-nature conservation behaviours. The paper has just been published in Ecopsychology, where the final version can be accessed. The accepted version is available here. The thinking underpinning the study is quite involved and can be read in the full paper, but a flavour is given in this summary.

It starts long ago, with the once-dominant worldview, still found in Indigenous peoples worldwide who have spiritual traditions such as animism – where objects, plants, wildlife and places are viewed as having a spiritual essence. This embedded relationship with the rest of the natural world has great relevance to nature connectedness. It also raises interesting questions about how nature connectedness relates to the philosophy of consciousness and our modern relationship to the objective world.

Famously, the Cartesian view sees the subject as separate from the object, and this is reflected in nature connectedness, most accessibly through a key measurement tool. The Inclusion of Nature in Self scale uses overlapping circles to reflect the extent to which an individual’s view of self is separate from nature. This reflects a fundamental construct in Western thinking; the disembodied Cartesian self is a common notion in Western societies. And those that place themselves outside nature tend to show less care for nature – and have lower levels of wellbeing.

Gregory Bateson saw this Cartesian dualism as a key cause of the destruction of nature, writing that if humans continue to think in that way, “it is doubtful whether a species having both an advanced technology and this strange way of looking at its world can endure”. So the study included a measure of dualism.

In Buddhist thought, suffering arrives from our attachment to these separate external objects and impermanent states. Here a more accurate worldview is that all things, including people, are devoid of a ‘self’. So, dualistic behaviours, including craving for things we desire, perpetuate a cycle of suffering – whereas being free from this cycle involves nonattachment. A non-dualistic form of awareness is a central concept of Buddhism. Nonattachment is a state of detachment from objects and concerns, overcoming an attachment for things. Ultimately, all of us are temporary – attachment can’t be a permanent state. Nonattachment is the second measure in this study.

The lotus symbolizes nonattachment in some religions owing to its ability to grow in muddy waters yet produce an immaculate flower.

Human thought has considered beauty for millennia. Western philosophy considers beauty a fundamental aspect of our existence that strongly influences our behaviour. Our relationship with nature includes the beauty of nature – engaging with it is a pathway to nature connectedness. Gregory Bateson felt that engaging with beauty was key to a closer relationship with nature and the wider ecology. Although a link between nature connectedness and engagement with nature’s beauty has been established, the link to pro-nature conservation behaviours has received little attention. Therefore, a measure of engagement with nature’s beauty was included in the study.

These measures, plus one for nature connectedness and pro-nature conservation behaviours, were included in a survey. As well as looking at the relationship between these factors, the analysis looked at the relationship to nature conservation behaviours. The insight gained potentially informs new ways to encourage people to take action for nature’s recovery.

The strongest relationship between the factors was found between nature connectedness and engagement with nature’s beauty, which was linked to pro-nature conservation behaviours. There was a weak to moderate relationship between nonattachment and nature connectedness and a weak, yet somewhat surprising, association between dualism and nature connectedness. In comparison, nonattachment was unrelated to a dualistic worldview. These are discussed in the paper.

Of more practical interest, the significant predictors of pro-nature conservation behaviours were nature connectedness, nonattachment, and engagement with nature’s beauty also having a role. Nonattachment and engagement with nature’s beauty explained similar levels of pro-nature behaviours, with nature connectedness having a stronger relationship, about twice as strong.

The results build on previous work showing the importance of nature connectedness in explaining pro-nature conservation behaviours. They also provide some initial insight into other factors that explain a person’s inclination to actively care for nature. This suggests that in addition to nature connectedness, interventions that foster nonattachment and appreciation of nature’s beauty may have a role in effective programmes to aid nature’s recovery.

 

Barrows, P. D., Richardson, M., Hamlin, I., & Van Gordon, W. (2022). Nature Connectedness, Nonattachment, and Engagement with Nature’s Beauty Predict Pro-Nature Conservation Behavior. Ecopsychology.

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The Curious Tale of Adolescent’s Nature Connection

Several studies have now found that there is a ‘teenage dip’ in nature connectedness. In this latest research, expertly led by Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, we looked into children’s nature connectedness in more detail. It’s been published in Current Research in Ecological and Social Psychology where the full paper can be read. This blog provides a summary.

Disconnected from favourite places?

The survey focussed on one geographical area and surveyed 1872 children between 7 and 18 years old. The survey included a measure of nature connectedness plus a range of other questions to explore the factors that may be related to nature connection. These were things like type of school funding, urban/rural location and access/engagement with nature-based activities, plus wider questions about screen time, favourite places and activities.

As with previous research, the results revealed a ‘teenage dip, in nature connectedness, which was more pronounced in boys than girls. It can be seen this was already in decline at the age of 7. Curiously, despite this dip, the survey found that adolescents’ favourite places were natural spaces. So, although adolescents appreciate nature their emotional attachment and feeling of being part of nature is diminished.

Children’s nature connection by age

There was variation though, those young people who preferred natural places, both in general or for relaxation, had higher levels of nature connectedness. While those selecting home as a favourite place had the lowest.

When asked about barriers to getting out into nature, the most frequent response at 43% was that nothing was preventing them from going outside into nature. The second largest barrier was weather (21%), followed by health (10%), school/work (9%) and safety (5%). Similar to our work with adults on smartphones, we found a strong negative relationship between nature connectedness and self-reported screen time, and this was consistent across all age groups and in both sexes.

Whereas favourite places were natural spaces, favourite activities were not in nature. Sports were the most frequently mentioned activities (56% of people), then arts and crafts (35%), fitness (26%) and games such as computer games (18%). Several nature-based activities together came in below 5% and several of those activities weren’t necessarily related to building or maintaining nature connectedness.

As we know that certain types of activity in nature and engagement with nature are key to nature connectedness, it seems likely that the focus on non-nature activities is important. However, the preference for natural spaces provides a path through to increasing more nature based activities, perhaps combining them with other popular activities such as arts and crafts which are well placed to explore the pathways to nature connectedness.

The survey also found that rural schools provided greater access to nature, particularly at primary level, than their urban equivalents. So, it’s little surprise that children in rural schools had higher levels of nature connectedness than children in urban schools – although this effect was weaker when only secondary level students were considered. We also found that children attending non-fee-paying schools had lower nature connectedness levels than those at fee-paying schools, particularly at primary level.

So, in sum, while children’s favourite places are natural spaces, their favourite activities are not nature focussed and the levels of nature connectedness reflect this. To form a closer relationship with nature and access the benefits for mental health and pro-nature behaviour, there is a need for nature to move from a special place, to a place of engagement with nature – from a passive to an active relationship.

 

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