Great Oaks from little Acorns grow

We’re always looking for new ways to try and develop a new relationship with nature. So it’s been great to team up with artist Charlotte Smithson for Great Oaks from little Acorns grow. An installation that will be exhibited within the Great Pavilion at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show from 21-26 September 2021. The piece responds to the pathways to nature connectedness and Charlotte first got in touch with me in 2019 to plan a collaborative installation – originally in 2020. So, it’s wonderful for it to finally become a reality as part of the Oak Project. We’ve also created a guided meditation based on our original that delivered sustained improvements to nature connectedness and mental wellbeing.

The aim for Great Oaks from little Acorns grow was to create an installation that encourages people to tune into nature and celebrate its beauty. Out of their natural habitat, in transparent vessels and surrounded by empty space attention is focussed on the plants – their beauty and vulnerability becomes more profound. The work also breathes calmness and peace. The plants themselves are chosen for their meaning and it is hoped the work will evoke an emotional connection to nature and instil an improved compassion for nature.

Great Oaks from little Acorns grow – Image by Ray Chan

Artist Charlotte Smithson said, ‘In a mutually symbiotic relationship between two organisms, both parties benefit from one another. Through the air we breathe, the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the medicines that heal us, humans are inextricably linked to plants, but because we have become disconnected from nature, we’re often guilty of taking, but not giving back. It is vital we redress that balance. This piece is not just a comment on the environmental crises. This is a call to action.‘

For me, Great Oaks from little Acorns grow taps into many of the relationships people have with nature. From plants that have uses, those we control and those we study through to those that bring us closer to nature. Beautiful plants that, through the joy and calm they bring, add meaning to our lives and a desire to care for them. The work celebrates these relationships and is a lesson in the attention and noticing of nature needed for a sustainable future.

Importantly, the environmental impact of each component is minimised. The piece contains organically grown plants, recycled laboratory glassware, reused and repaired mechanics and compostable biomaterials.

Our wider research shows that a connection with nature starts with a moment. A moment to notice, to grow a new relationship with nature based on uniting human and nature’s wellbeing. Great Oaks from little Acorns grow invites people to reflect on their personal role in restoring a more balanced relationship with the natural world.

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The Green Care Code – Good for nature, good for you

As part of Great Big Green Week the University of Derby is launching a Green Care Code with Go Jauntly and the Mental Health Foundation. Simply, Stop – Look – Listen and Enjoy Nature! If you’d like to find out more and help spread the word of the Green Care Code take a look here.

Over recent years our research has shown again and again that simple actions in nature matter. Just taking a moment to notice nature helps build a closer relationship with it. And research shows that this close relationship provides a boost for mental health and pro-nature actions.

The Green Care Code

The Great Big Green Week celebrates action for nature and an essential first step to action is finding a friend in nature. Working with the National Trust, we ran a national YouGov survey to explore what best explained pro-nature conservation behaviours. Key factors were people’s connection with nature and actively tuning into nature, which we know increases nature connection. Engaging in simple nature activities, such as taking a moment to listen to bird song, were the largest contributors to pro-nature conservation behaviours. More widely, other researchers have found a robust and causal link between nature connection and pro-environmental actions, that is, those related to cutting carbon use, rather than creating homes for nature.

If the benefits to nature aren’t enough, the Green Care Code is good for our own mental wellbeing too. When we prompted people to ‘stop, look and listen’ in order to notice the good things in nature for a week, they experienced clinically significant improvements in mental health – and this was in an urban environment. People wrote about the breeze in the trees, beauty of flowers, active wildlife in the park, changing seasons and birds singing. This doesn’t need a special trip, it can be at the bus-stop or on a trip outside to your wheelie bin, nature finds a home in the most unlikely places. More recently we’ve repeated this work and found significant improvements in both wellbeing and pro-nature actions for those taking part. It’s clear – simple moments with nature matter for human and nature’s wellbeing.

Sadly, people don’t tend to notice nature. There are many demands for our attention and nature features less and less in our lives. In wider analysis with the National Trust we found around 80% of people report that they rarely or never watched wildlife, smelled wildflowers or drew/photographed nature. 62% of people rarely or never listened to bird song or took a moment to notice butterflies or bees. It comes as no surprise then that although 80% of people expressed concern about the state of nature, far fewer actively help its recovery – for example only 29% said they’d created a home for wildlife in the past year. We found that those people with a high level of nature connectedness did much more than those with a weaker relationship.

The 2020 lockdown revealed this hidden need for a Green Care Code. Through looking at Natural England People and Nature Survey data we found that people reported noticing nature more, and that explained higher levels of wellbeing and pro-nature actions. Sadly, although people found a friend in nature during the lockdown of Spring 2020, the levels of noticing nature have fallen since.

The climate and wildlife emergencies show that our relationship with nature is failing. Fixing that relationship requires transformational change throughout society. However, part of that change is more people celebrating the benefits of a close relationship with nature. That needs a reminder to pause, notice and enjoy nature – a Green Care Code. A code that reminds us to care for nature and care for ourselves, for a future with more wildlife and more celebration of it because there’s no wellbeing without nature’s wellbeing.

So, remember your Green Care Code every day, wherever you are, and Stop – Look – Listen and Enjoy nature.

 

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An Audio Meditation to Improve Nature Connectedness and Mental Health

Sometimes, we can’t get out into nature and our research shows that people typically spend less than five minutes each day in green space. Developing indirect ways to build nature connectedness helps those with restricted access and can build connection so that people are more likely to seek out nature. As well as improving everyday wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours, we’re also interested in how nature connectedness can be used for therapeutic interventions. The results of our latest research, a student’s Masters project, show how a nature focussed audio meditation can bring large and sustained increases in nature connectedness and improve mental wellbeing. The paper has just been published in the journal Ecopsychology where the final version can be accessed. An earlier version is available here.

Through increasing nature connectedness, we hoped to reduce anxiety and paranoia. Paranoid thoughts, such as the fear that something bad will happen and that others are responsible, are very common and are closely connected with anxiety. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommends cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) as a psychological intervention for both paranoia-related conditions and anxiety. However, CBT has shown only minimal effects on paranoia. So, there has been growing interest in other approaches, including mindfulness.

However, mindfulness-based approaches can be prohibitive due to factors such as time (a typical MBI takes place over an 8-week course) and accessibility. To address this the use of brief online mindfulness-based interventions (B-MBIs) has been explored with some promising results. There is also promising evidence for the effectiveness of brief nature-imagery and nature connectedness interventions such as our ‘three good things in nature’ intervention which has been to shown to deliver clinically significant improvements in mental health through increasing nature connectedness – which is in itself a desirable outcome given the links to eudemonic wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours.

An obvious next step was to explore whether a brief intervention combining both mindfulness and nature connectedness components is an effective approach to improving nature connectedness and reducing symptoms of anxiety and paranoia.  So, we set out to investigate the effects of an online brief mindful nature-connectedness intervention (B-MNCI) on nature connectedness, paranoia and anxiety symptoms in a non-clinical sample.

A randomised controlled trial design was used. Thirty-seven participants were randomly allocated to the intervention group and 35 to the waitlist control group. The average age of those taking part was 26 years, with an age range of 18-50 years. They were English speaking, based in Europe and a good balance of male and females. An online survey was used to collect participant information as well as responses to four psychometric instruments targeting anxiety, paranoia, mindfulness and nature connectedness. Psychometric tests were administered before, immediately after listening to the 10 minute audio meditation for five consecutive days, and again two weeks later.

The script of the B-MNCI focused on activating the five pathways to nature connectedness and in addition to the narration, a background audio recording of a natural soundscape helped the listener imagine themselves in a natural setting. Inspiring nature connectedness was evoked by first inviting participants to bring sensory awareness to nature’s beauty. The audio meditation then gently guided listeners to imagine what the landscape they were listening to might look and feel like. As they imagined sitting within this landscape, they were invited to focus on their sensations, noticing, entering into contact with, and actively engaging with nature. In the final minutes listeners were encouraged to be aware of what emotions the natural space they imagined had evoked, thus becoming emotionally more engaged and reflecting on what nature might mean for them.

You can try the meditation. Make sure to sit in a quiet place and settle into a comfortable position. Gently close your eyes as you listen:

The results showed that the online B-MNCI was effective in bringing about significant increases in nature connectedness and lower paranoia when compared to the control group. It should also be noted that these changes were maintained at the follow-up. However, the same findings were not observed for anxiety. There are very few interventions that have been shown to bring about sustained increases in nature connectedness and the improvement of 17% was also notable. The national fall in nature connectedness from a lockdown high in May 2020 to May 2021 was 16%. A new approach to bringing about sustained increases in nature connectedness is important. As is confirmation that such approaches can improve mental health outcomes. This small study opens up some exciting opportunities for improving the human-nature relationship and therapeutic approaches to mental health.

 

Muneghina, O., Van Gordon, W., Barrows, P., & Richardson, M. (2021). A Novel Mindful Nature Connectedness Intervention Improves Paranoia but Not Anxiety in a Nonclinical Population. Ecopsychology.

 

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The Butterfly Affect: Can noticing nature really boost wellbeing and help address climate chaos?

In chaos theory The Butterfly Effect is a term for a situation where small changes may have large effects, such as the path of a tornado being influenced by the distant flapping of butterfly wings weeks before. It arose when meteorologist Edward Lorenz observed how seemingly inconsequential changes to his weather model produced dramatic effects.

A focus of my research is that actively noticing nature increases levels of nature connectedness, which in-turn leads to improved mental wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. One of the items we’ve used in this research refers to noticing butterflies, 62% of adults infrequently or never take time to notice butterflies. We’ve found that moments noticing butterflies and other simple joys of nature such as listening to birdsong explain mental health and pro-nature behaviours. During 2020’s first lockdown increases in noticing nature also explained both higher levels of wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. When we’ve asked people to write down the good things in nature that they notice, it leads to greater pro-nature behaviours and mental wellbeing.

Simply noticing nature helps build nature connectedness, a closer relationship with nature that drives the pro-environmental behaviours required to help reduce climate chaos. The active sensory engagement of noticing nature is the first step to finding beauty, emotion and meaning in nature – and to caring for nature – the pathways to nature connectedness.

So, The Butterfly Affect, refers to the influence and impact of everyday nature on our emotions. When noticed, emotions can be affected by simple things like a passing butterfly or singing bird. If a passing butterfly affects us, such that we feel the effect on our emotions, it’s a small step toward nature connectedness, mental wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. Of course, affect can also mean the experience of feeling emotion, and research shows that moments with nature can help manage our feelings.

Butterflies can affect us in meaningful ways.

This dreamy world of enjoying birdsong and noticing butterflies can seem adrift from the complex lives lived by many people, but it is something we’ve tested in urban environments, even during winter months. Simply noticing nature can seem even further adrift from the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis that require transformational and urgent action on a global scale. This needs extensive political and cultural change. How can noticing a butterfly make a difference?

Speaking after the publication of the influential IPBES global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystems, Sir Bob Watson, lead scientist of the work, noted that a core issue concerns humans and asked how can we become more in tune with nature? And how do we relate to nature? This core relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world is at the heart of the climate crisis and loss of wildlife. Largely, the human-nature relationship is failing.

Fixing that failing relationship and increasing levels of nature connectedness starts with noticing nature – on a large scale. That change can be facilitated by the political and cultural environment to form a new relationship with nature. The pathways to nature connectedness can be applied at societal scale to create an environment where nature is a valued part of everyday living. Through the design of urban spaces, our institutions, and our approach to health and education.

The political, scientific, and cultural environment led to an exploitation of natural resources that diminished habitats and polluted the atmosphere. Many of these changes occurred imperceptibly over time with each shovel of coal, each switch of the light and each tree felled. Small individual actions are both a product and shaper of culture. If a culture can be created where a passing butterfly is noticed and enjoyed by the many, there will be a greater chance to limit climate chaos and the destruction of nature. Such nature rich living would feel good and worthwhile, with people being more supportive of the wider changes needed for a sustainable future. Butterflies can affect us in meaningful ways.

 

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Urban greenspace use: Insights from mobile phone GPS data

A major challenge to understanding how to harness urban greenspace as a tool for improving health and well-being is the lack of data available on how people actually use greenspace. Four years ago I wrote about the launch of a smartphone app to study how green and built spaces affect our wellbeing. Previous papers have revealed the benefits when people are prompted to engage with greenspace, the good things in urban nature and the impact of more biodiverse greenspaces. The app also tracked the user’s time and use of green spaces identified by 945 ‘geofences’ in Sheffield.  The GPS tracking data collected by the app has been analysed to illustrate how city residents use their urban greenspace. A research paper on how to handle such complex data and providing basic data on the trips has been published in Plos One.

To our knowledge, this is the first paper using GPS data to specifically investigate adults’ greenspace-visiting behaviour. So, the paper provides basic information that we’ve had little insight into before. Aspects such as: (1) how long users spend in greenspaces; (2) how far they travel within them; (3) how far from home they travel to visit them; (4) average speeds of users; and (5) types of greenspaces visited. This objective data is also compared to self-report MENE data.

The geofences of green spaces

The app recorded 29,669 trips from 656,000 GPS data points on 888 smartphones. The process of extracting trip-level data from the raw GPS data points was complex and comprised several stages. From dividing GPS points into trips, to interpolation to obtain polylines with vertices corresponding to regular time intervals. The final stages of post-processing involved cropping the starts and ends of journeys to greenspaces, and checking the validity of trips as representations of single, non-vehicular visits to greenspace. Full details are given in the paper.

Heat map of most visited places

Lots of details of the trips are included in the paper, but the key findings were that the median trip length was 190 meters with a median duration of 4 minutes 36 seconds. This reveals the reality of urban engagement with nature for many. On average the user of the app made just over one trip per day to a greenspace, with a weekly total duration of nearly an hour and total distance of around 2.5 km.

These trip statistics were influenced by demographic factors including age (older participants spent more time and covered more distance in greenspaces) and gender (women make more frequent trips to greenspace). Importantly, ethnicity and deprivation also play a role, with ethnic minorities and people from more deprived areas making shorter visits to greenspaces. It should be noted that the difference was 3 minutes to 4.5 minutes. There is a need for equality of access, however there’s a fundamental problem of very little time being spent in greenspaces. When the most common trip to urban greenspace is around 0.004% of a typical day, it changes the conversation around access to nature, it needs to be more equal and higher for all. Recent research shows that people in the UK visit nature less than other countries.

Finally on demographics, time spent outside as a child seemed to positively influence the frequency of trips made as an adult, suggesting that behaviours learnt as a child continue into adult life. Time spent outside in the past year was also significant, with people who have spent more time outside having a 25% faster walking speed!

Four minutes in urban nature

The GPS results were compared to results from the face-to-face MENE survey. For types of green spaces, the MENE category “park in a town or city” comprises 53% of visits to greenspaces within towns and cities. This was very similar to the 50% of trips from the app data. Parks, both local and large, were found to be particularly popular destinations for greenspace visits given that only 15% of the geofenced greenspaces that were parks. However, 3% of MENE trips were to “woodland or forest”, compared to 13% from the app, showing how self-report can underestimate some everyday exposure to nature.

Our results suggest that most day-to-day greenspace trips are brief and incidental, i.e. travelling through rather than to greenspace. This reveals an important reality of people’s everyday engagement with nature. The results also confirm the importance of including social and cultural factors when investigating who uses and who benefits from urban greenspace. Of course, regular readers of this blog, will know a key theme is engagement with nature, moving beyond visits and thinking about ‘moments not minutes’.

In a recent study people asked to “tap into their sense of wonder” on a 15 minute walk in nature found greater benefit than those that just walked in nature. Also, we’ve found that a person’s relationship with nature explains the benefits of greenspace over and above visits and time. However, there’s an interaction between the two, connection is built on moments  and time in greenspaces. So, while the data on trips matters, the engagement during the visit is key. As is the reality of everyday time in nature revealed in this latest research. There’s a need to consider how to turn brief incidental trips to and through urban greenspaces into everyday moments of wonder. Imaginative design and awareness of the role of nature in keeping well can do this – and those wonderful places would attract longer visits too.

 

Mears, M., Brindley, P., Barrows, P., Richardson, M., & Maheswaran, R. (2021). Mapping urban greenspace use from mobile phone GPS data. PloS one16(7), e0248622.

 

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