Beyond Nature Contact to Connection: A Missing Link in a Sustainable and Worthwhile Life.

Our latest research with 4,960 adults across England has found that nature connectedness is important, over and above getting out into nature, for eudaemonic wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. The work is a key paper from a five-year project co-ordinated by Natural England, supported by several national nature conservation groups and involving a number of universities along the way. The project aimed to establish the contribution of both nature contact and nature connection to wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours.

A large amount of evidence has been published showing time in, and contact with, nature are important for health and wellbeing and this evidence is now increasingly recognised. However, nature connectedness as a measurable psychological construct that describes how close a person is to nature has emerged more recently, so much less is know about its contribution, especially when entered into the models that study contact with nature.

The study, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, investigated the relationships between nature contact (visits and neighbourhood greenspace), nature connectedness (measured using the NCI developed as part of the project), general health, wellbeing, pro-environmental and pro-nature conservation behaviours within a single study analysed using linear regression models.

The study collected data from a representative sample of the adult population of England (N = 4,960) collected via the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE) survey. As part of the United Kingdom’s official statistics, substantial effort is made to ensure representative sampling.

Check out the full research paper for the analysis, here we can jump straight to a selection of the results.

Nature Connectedness

After accounting for various types of nature exposure and a comprehensive range of socio-demographics (e.g. socio-economic status, neighbourhood deprivation, urbanicity, gender, ethnicity, employment, marital status) we found:

  • A positive relationship between nature connectedness and feeling one’s life has meaning and is worthwhile (eudaemonic wellbeing) – nearly 4 times larger than the increase associated with higher socio-economic status.
  • A positive relationship between nature connectedness and household pro-environmental behaviours (e.g. recycling, buying locally sourced food, eco-friendly products, walking or cycling).
  • A positive relationship between nature connectedness and pro-nature conservation behaviours (e.g. supporting nature conservation and volunteering).

A close relationship with nature is 4 times more important than purchasing power for feeling your life is worthwhile.

Psychological connectedness to nature was found to be important over and above getting out into nature for eudaemonic wellbeing, pro-environmental behaviours and pro-nature conservation behaviours.

Contact With Nature

For contact with nature we found:

  • Visiting nature once per week or more was associated with better household pro-environmental behaviours and general health (to a level substantially higher than socio-economic status) – but not directly to living a worthwhile life or pro-nature conservation behaviours.
  • Living in a greener neighbourhood was negatively related to general health and unrelated to any wellbeing or sustainability outcomes – highlighting the difference between presence of and use of greenspace.

These results suggest a need to encourage visits to local green spaces, but for the type of activities related to nature connectedness (e.g. pathways to nature connection) – more on this below.

Indirect contact with nature through watching nature programmes was also included in the analysis, there were some positive results with complex interactions. In brief, individuals who watched nature programmes reported more pro-nature conservation behaviours than those who did not, and this pattern became more marked as nature connectedness increased. This suggests further work around designing nature programming around the pathways to nature connection to intentionally increase nature connectedness could be worthwhile. However, for highly connected individuals watching nature programming was related to reduced life satisfaction, perhaps related to heightened concern about the decline of nature now increasingly referenced in nature programmes. This highlights the need for efforts to increase nature connectedness (for human and nature’s wellbeing) to be accompanied by positive news on the restoration of nature.

Visit nature for health. Connect for wellbeing.

Interaction effects

The analysis also considered how the main factors worked together.

Nature connectedness was found to be a key factor, not just in terms of a direct relationship with wellbeing and pro-nature behaviour, but also through interaction effects on indirect and intentional nature contact. For instance, living a worthwhile life, nature connectedness and frequency of visits to nature interacted. This suggests optimal visits may be those that activate nature connectedness – once again through the type of activities suggested by the pathways to nature connection.

For pro-nature behaviours and eudaimonic wellbeing think ‘what’ rather than ‘how long’ or ‘how often’.

Pro-nature Behaviours

The study also provided some interesting results on pro-nature behaviours.

Firstly, the analysis showed that pro-environmental behaviours and pro-nature conservation behaviours are distinct factors – that is they form two types of human behaviours that need to be thought of differently. However, although there are many validated scales of pro-environmental behaviours, there are none for pro-nature conservation behaviours (the good news is we’ve developed one at the University of Derby).

The study found that household pro-environmental behaviours, such as recycling, were far more frequent in our sample than pro-nature conservation behaviours (e.g. nature conservation volunteering) that are likely to require greater commitment and effort – and, as another paper from the project reports, are associated with higher levels of nature connectedness.

It is important to note that while the direct relationships between nature connectedness were stronger for household than conservation behaviours, the interaction effects were stronger for conservation than household behaviours. This suggests that efforts to improve nature connectedness may be particularly important for conservation behaviours that arguably require greater personal effort.

A close relationship with nature is important for pro-nature behaviours.

Implications

It is important to note that the link between nature connectedness and both living a more worthwhile life and pro-nature behaviours remained after accounting for various types of nature exposure and a comprehensive range of socio-demographics. Also, it should be noted that causality cannot be established form this type of research, however evidence of a causal relationship between nature connectedness and key outcomes has been found in other research, for example to improved pro-environmental behaviours and greater wellbeing.

The current study has though identified that the role of nature connectedness is important over and above getting out into nature for the two important outcomes of eudaimonic wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. These effects are practically meaningful, given that they were greater in magnitude to benchmark socio-demographic factors.

Nature connectedness is a key target to foster a worthwhile and sustainable life.

Theory and research has largely overlooked the relevance of person specific factors in human-nature interactions and the results suggest that a more nuanced approach to human-nature interactions is necessary. This has implications for policies related to improving both human and planetary health.

The interaction effects show that nature connectedness influences the way in which people respond to contact with nature. This suggests that interventions are needed that increase both contact with, and connection to nature, in order to achieve human and nature’s wellbeing.

The results are particularly relevant to practitioners and policy makers because of the nationally representative nature of the sample and diverse types of nature contact respondents had. The concept of a worthwhile life also links through to the idea of a “good life”. A key transformative change stated in the IPBES assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystems (Section D3: Summary for policy makers) was to re-evaluate what we mean by the idea of a “good life” – improving nature connectedness provides a target to help establish a worthwhile life, a pro-nature life – a good life.

Conclusion

In sum, the psychological construct of nature connectedness, which describes the closeness of our emotional relationship with nature, was a key factor. Firstly, in terms of its direct relationship with having a worthwhile life, pro-environmental and pro-nature conservation behaviours. Secondly, through its moderating effect on nature contact – reporting a meaningful and worthwhile life (eudaimonic wellbeing), nature visit frequency and nature connectedness interacted, suggesting optimal visits may be those that activate the pathways to nature connectedness – which has implications for the types of activity encouraged in greenspaces.

The results support the value of collecting population levels of nature connectedness (as we did with the NCI) and encouraging interventions that increase it among the population. There is a clear need to move beyond facilitating access to nature to consider access for connection with nature. The pathways to nature connectedness (PDF pathways postcard) provide a design framework for interventions intended to facilitate the right type of nature engagement for connection.

Encouragingly we know nature connectedness can be increased through simple interventions such as noticing the good things in nature and campaigns such as 30 Days Wild. However, the warming climate and crisis of biodiversity loss show that the human relationship with the rest of nature is broken. The population data shows that levels of nature connectedness need to be significantly higher for the majority of the population to bring about the behaviours required for a sustainable future. A new, closer and sustainable relationship with nature will require systemic change at deep leverage points. We’re already working on ways to apply the pathways to nature connectedness at deep leverage points and will publish proposals in the coming months. For now, the research above provides an essential first step, identifying the key role of nature connectedness, highlighting a missing link in human and nature’s wellbeing.

 

Martin, L., White, M. P., Hunt, A., Richardson, M., Pahl, S., & Burt, J. (2020). Nature contact, nature connectedness and associations with health, wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviours. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 101389.

 

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Cats, Dogs, LSD and the Meaning of Know

A few articles, conversations and blogs have caught my attention recently – dogs (and cats for balance), LSD and the notion of ‘to know is to care’. All with a relation to nature of course!

Firstly, I’ve seen debates on Twitter and an article on dogs and nature reserves recently. The article argued along the lines that the need for human contact with nature means that dogs, and therefore their owners, should be allowed into nature reserves. The environmental impact of the dogs being acceptable as contact with nature for the owner brings care for nature. There’s a body of research into the impact of dogs on wildlife. For example, with dog walking reducing bird variety and numbers by around 40%, even when on leads. There’s not so much on contact, time or exposure to nature leading to pro-environmental behaviour (broadly carbon footprint reduction). Predictors of pro-environmental behaviour tend to be values, responsibility, attachment and nature connectedness – recent research shows it’s about relationships more than time. The same research suggests visits to nature isn’t related to pro-nature conservation behaviours (broadly habitat creation) – whereas nature connection is.

Cats and Dogs and Nature

It’d be very difficult to assess whether the impact of a little more individual contact on pro-nature behaviour would outweigh the harm done by the dogs’ presence, but recent evidence suggests it would not. Personally, I’m all for nature reserves being for nature with any human access being related to necessary monitoring and management, or as a ‘leave no trace’ place to help build human-nature connectedness – that is an outcome linked to pro-nature conservation behaviours.

I was also struck by a line in the article that dog owners’ level of contact with nature puts them first in line to be champions and campaigners for nature.  Putting the contact to care link aside, there’s little data on whether dog owners care for nature more than none owners. What has been found is that pet owners, including cat owners, exhibit greater pro-environmental behaviours. It seems likely that people who care for nature are more likely to have a pet – bringing a link to nature by proxy into their lives perhaps. As cats don’t get walked it also suggests the additional regular contact with nature through dog walks is not a big factor in care. However, cats have a greater impact on wildlife than dogs – so those who care more have a pet which impacts wildlife more. A message here is that there are no simple explanations.

What I think we should understand is that ultimately human actions have an impact on nature. Be it owning a dog, a cat, driving to a nature reserve alone, buying products with palm oil – even turning on a light. As the article says ‘humans are messy and self-regarding’ – we need to accept that many of our actions impact the rest of nature in some way. Few, if any of us in the Western world ‘leave no trace’. What we do know is there’s a causal link between a close connection with nature and doing more to care for the environment. And that a close connection with nature doesn’t come through time spent in nature alone.

So how do we improve the relationship with nature? Should the less connected to nature take LSD?

That’s an idea in a recent research paper on the links between psychedelic use and nature connectedness. It has received a lot of interest, including in The Conversation, it makes for a headline. In a survey of psychedelic substance users the researchers studied the relationship between psychedelic use and nature connectedness. They found increased ego-dissolution and influence of natural surroundings during the psychedelic state (to me this is the interesting aspect of research in this area, suggesting nature connectedness is an observable brain state). The researchers concluded that there was evidence for a causal effect of psychedelic use on increased nature connectedness (of around 2.7% from my calculation), and that this “bears relevance for psychedelic treatment models in mental health and, in the face of the current ecological crisis, planetary health“. Noting that “these findings point to the potential of psychedelics to induce enduring positive changes in the way humans relate to their natural environments“. They also “propose the use of specific techniques for nature connection before or after treatment with psychedelics, such as forest walking, or Shinrin-Yoku (forest bathing).”

Although the positive impact of nature connectedness for human and nature’s well-being is highlighted in the paper, there’s little on existing interventions to improve nature connectedness. Indeed, although there’s likely to be a positive impact, currently there is little evidence on a link between forest bathing and nature connectedness. Successful interventions that have delivered greater increases in nature connectedness and clinically significant increases in mental health, such as noticing the good things in nature and 30 Days Wild, are not discussed. If ‘treatment with psychedelics‘ is a proposed route the majority of the UK population would need to take them – but even then a 2-3% increase wouldn’t be enough for a sustainable future.

Practicalities and outcomes aside, i’m not sure taking a biomedical approach to the problem of our disconnection from nature is beneficial. The biomedical model of medicine is based on a deviation from ‘normal’ – health being a function of the individual. These models view people as separate from the environment, separate from nature. ‘One health’ models where nature is part of people’s health can help bring about the cultural changes that can bring about the increases in nature connectedness needed for a sustainable future.

So if prescribing psychedelics is not the solution, what about teaching people to care through increasing knowledge about nature?

Some of those seeking to build a more caring relationship with nature suggest that “We won’t love what we don’t know” or in a recent tweet “We need to teach our children about the natural world so they learn to love it and therefore will fight to protect it”. Some cite Richard Louv “We cannot protect something we do not love, we cannot love what we do not know” – however, the quote continues – “and we cannot know what we do not see. Or hear. Or sense.”

This is important as out of context the start of that passage could refer to know as “be aware of through observation, inquiry, or information”. However, the paragraph the quote is taken from refers to ‘attachment theory’ – a deep and enduring emotional bond. The following paragraph refers to sense of place, relationships, beauty and wonder. Here a second definition of know makes better sense – “have developed a relationship with”.

So, to see, hear and sense are part of the meaning of ‘know’ – to be aware of and have developed a relationship with. Research shows a focus on education, information and knowledge, such as learning facts and figures, is not the route to connection with and care for nature. Education explains 2% of ecological behaviours, nature connectedness explains 69%. To know – to hear, sense and see – matters as a caring relationship comes from noticing, wonder, finding meaning and beauty.

So rather than know that a tree is an oak we should consider what ‘know’ in this context means. See, sense, hear, notice, experience, appreciate, feel, behold, be friends with the tree. Then you’re likely to want to learn that the tree is an oak, understand its ecology and cultural significance.

 

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Do urban green spaces with more birds promote positive emotions?

Our latest research paper has just been published in Urban Ecosystems, this blog provides excerpts and a brief summary of the full paper which is available open access. The research was part of the Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature project which was all about the relationships between urban green space and residents health and well-being. I’ve already written about one key outcome of the project, our smartphone app that led to clinically significant improvements in mental health through noticing the good things in nature. Another part of the app was for users to rate both biodiversity and the positive emotions of the green spaces they visited.

In a world that is rapidly urbanising access to nature and green spaces can be restricted owing to urban sprawl or provision of green space not being prioritised. Urbanisation is also associated with habitat loss and reduction in biodiversity. Yet urban green space is good for wellbeing – however will any type of green space do? Is green space with greater biodiversity better for wellbeing? Is it simply about access to nature or engagement?

The human need for nature is now seen in some models of health, for example the ‘one health’ perspective. Nature is a positive force for wellbeing and is central to positive emotional states helping manage our emotions. The beneficial effects of nature on wellbeing are driven by increases in positive affect. Positive emotions broaden thoughts and actions and help build resilience, leading to sustained well-being benefits. There is also a relationship between positive affect and immune function through up-regulation of immune components. In the published research we use ‘in the moment’ emotional responses to nature in urban environments as a measure of positive emotion.

Higher levels of biodiversity have been linked to more positive psychological responses. Also, perceived floral richness has been linked to higher levels of nature connectedness which itself is associated with higher levels of wellbeing. However, care is required when defining urban biodiversity. Although urbanisation is linked with losses to native biodiversity, actual overall biodiversity can rise in parks due to the wide use of non-native and cultivated plants. In this study we restricted ourselves to birds and defined habitat types to avoid such complications.

Despite recent research on the value of green space for human well-being, it is not clear which types of urban green space should be promoted. Similarly, it is still not evident, to what extent such green spaces need to be biologically-rich to elicit positive emotions. Therefore our research set out to determine how typology of urban green space affected human emotion (how happy people felt) and whether more positive emotion was associated with higher biodiversity (as determined by bird species richness and habitat number) and participants’ perceptions of biodiversity or bird abundance.

The detailed method and results can be found in the full paper, but in brief results showed a strong relationship between levels of bird biodiversity within a green space and emotional response to that space. People reported being:

  • Happier in sites with greater variety of birds.
  • Happier in sites with a greater variety of habitats

Further, these relationships were strengthened when people thought the site was wildlife rich, even if it was not. The results strengthen the argument that nature enhances wellbeing through positive affect, and that increased engagement with nature may help support human wellbeing within urban environments. The results also have strong implications for city planning with respect to the design, management and use of city green spaces.

The positive results were found even when the green spaces may not necessarily be regarded as ‘top quality’ in terms of infrastructure, management and wildlife habitat. For example, a park with the highest bird biodiversity and habitat number and therefore promoting positive emotions, did not warrant a ‘Green Flag’ award; a standard based on public accessibility, environmental standards, maintenance levels and facilities available. Perhaps there’s a need for a ‘Green Heart’ award for those places that best enhance wellbeing and facilitate nature connectedness through facilitating the pathways to nature connectedness.

The results are also encouraging as the general publics’ perceived biodiversity related strongly with actual bird biodiversity. This provides further evidence of people having an innate, but latent, connection to the rest of the natural world – or the secret network of nature. Also, there was some evidence that engagement with nature increased with use of the smartphone app, perceptions of biodiversity and emotional levels increased, suggesting that noticing the good things in nature (which increased nature connectedness) stimulated people to become more aware of nature.

Our previous work shows that engagement with nature’s beauty mediates the relationship between nature connectedness and happiness. Another interesting aspect of the results was that people with a high level of engagement with natural beauty responded less positively when they perceived low biodiversity than those with less engagement. Also, those more engaged with nature’s beauty responded more positively when they thought the green space was biologically rich. This suggests that for people who have a strong appreciation of nature’s beauty viewing biodiversity is important for positive emotions. However, they may also have the most to lose emotionally if green spaces become less diverse. The conundrum here is that we need people to have a stronger connection with the rest of nature to bring about pro-nature behaviours, yet in doing so we could expose more people to lower positive emotions and eco-anxiety if closer relationships with nature aren’t matched with the restoration of nature.

Further the results suggest that not any type of wildlife will do. Our relationships between positive emotions and bird biodiversity were stronger than those with bird species abundance, though the relationships with abundance improved when the more common species like pigeons and ducks were removed from the analysis. It is important that policy makers and conservation bodies maximise the opportunities to enhance biodiversity within urban areas – it is encounters with a variety of wildlife that appears important to many city residents.

A variety of birds is best for wellbeing

In sum, the results show some of the strongest correlations between urban biodiversity and positive emotions published to date. Policy makers need to consider more carefully the value that wildlife has for urban residents – our analysis of the good things in nature showed urban wildlife was important. The research strengthens the arguments that positive emotions can be strongly influenced by a connection to nature and the opportunity to engage with nature and appreciate its beauty. The results suggest that the type of green space matters and planners need to give space for quite extensive, diverse, green landscapes within urban areas. Finally, the results also suggest there is a need to move beyond access to connection and engagement – creating green spaces that prompt and give the opportunity to engage with a range of wildlife and the good things in nature.

 

Cameron, R.W.F., Brindley, P., Mears, M. et al. Where the wild things are! Do urban green spaces with greater avian biodiversity promote more positive emotions in humans?. Urban Ecosyst (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11252-020-00929-z

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Simplicity and Meaning: Heddon Valley Reflections

For a couple of days last week I took part in an outdoor experiences workshop with the National Trust in the Heddon Valley in Devon. Eighteen or so people took part, all successful and creative in their own areas. It was an immersive time, both perspectives and rain! Ideas flowed and this blog emerged as I worked through them on my return.

I live far from the coast, so I purposefully arrived to catch the last of the light for a walk to the coast. After several months inland and four hours in the confines of a car the hit of arriving on the pebble beach was emotional and inspiring – energetic yet calming.

Arrival – becoming part of the whole

After a day exploring the valley, we were invited to share provocations, mine included:

  • We are not a nation of nature lovers.
  • Our relationship with (the rest of) nature has failed.

But there is hope for a new relationship and a good, worthwhile life:

  • We have a deep latent connection with (the rest of) nature.
  • Simple activities in nature can help reconnect.

Simple things matter

For me, within the many ideas and perspectives, simplicity was a theme over the two days. The dramatic landscape of Heddon is built from many simple things. The need to prompt and pause, to look and listen, was mentioned often. Whether it’s urban nature or a more natural valley we need reminders to pause on our journeys. Our successful interventions to notice the good things are based on prompts and I’ve written about affordances and designing human-nature interactions before. There are many creative ways to create prompts, pauses and new relationships – from technology and art works to simple looking and listening tools. We need more.

Simplicity: Listening to a Robin Sing

The latest research is starting to show how important the simple things in nature are for building nature connectedness, wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. I pointed out that the origins of the National Trust align with the very latest research, through the writing of Octavia Hill for example. The power of this to me is that 125 years ago and more there was an awareness of the importance of the simple things in nature for wellbeing. The Victorian naturalist and writer Richard Jefferies saw our connection with nature and the impact on mental wellbeing:

“We are of the great community of living beings, indissolubly connected with them from the lowest to the highest by a thousand ties” & “The mind joys in the knowledge that it too is a part of this wonder—akin to the ten thousand thousand creatures, akin to the very earth itself.”

The good things in nature are constant. Humans are fundamentally unchanged. It is our culture and technology that have changed and reinforced our disconnection from the rest of nature.

Listening to an excellent guide

One simple event on the first day was a trip to the cliff top for an unexpected cup of tea made from water boiled in a Kelly Kettle. I don’t think I was alone in finding this simple experience enjoyable and memorable. Once again simplicity matters.

The two days also made me reflect on how simple things can build to become an experience and the magic of the mundane versus curated events that can use the landscape to powerful effect – making meaning.

Making Meaning

The second day had a focus on creating great outdoor experiences and was, on reflection, a deep dive into creating meaning – one of the pathways to nature connectedness. We’ve put some work into understanding this pathway and improving our guidance on this pathway as initially it felt a little elusive despite it being central to human experience of nature. Our revised guidance refers to celebrating the mystery, signs and cycles of nature. To creating stories and folktales – letting nature be your story. I’ve also realised that knowledge about nature should be used as a tool to unlock meaning – and the other pathways.

So the perspectives of others more used to creating meaning were of great interest. Encouragingly, there was talk of creating tradition, ritual and personal stories – ‘Where you go changes who you become’. More can be done on how the pathways and elements of a story can interact – helping people step towards our pathways strapline – ‘Let nature be your story’. Later on day two when talking about woodland, I shared how some traditional folktales teach the danger of the woods, and suggested the need for new folktales about the danger of a warming climate and loss of wildlife.

Also encouraging was regular talk of relationships with nature – and play, another topic I’ve been keen to pursue, but these things need an injection of creativity and expertise. Bringing together the various perspectives and experience over two days is a great way to develop new ways to help create a new relationship with nature.

Micro-Activities & Actions

Building on simple things there was talk of small actions taken by many – the valley gets a lot of visitors. We’ve introduced nature as providing the ‘micro-foundations of well-being’ in papers written last year and our extended frameworks for nature engagement have recently been published.  I like the idea of micro-actions as well as prompts to pause and sense nature. Micro-actions to connect to nature and micro-actions to act for nature. Micro-volunteering perhaps where thousands of visitors do one simple thing. Micro acts for meaning where visitors share their experience to create a compelling vision for a new relationship with nature.

I expect many of us want to take away the feeling of a special time spent in nature. When returning from my initial walk to the sea I wanted to take that feeling away, there was a personal story to share, to be collected. There are many such stories to gather at the moment people are in a ‘changed state’ from their visit – their experience. This is also a form of listening, another key message from the two days. To listen to visitors. To listen to those that stay away. Set a direction for a new relationship with nature and listen to how to get there.

 

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Other Ways to Walk: linking research and creative practice

Guest blog by Rachel Howfield Massey

As an arts and wellbeing practitioner specialising in the benefits of nature connection I work creatively with people in nature supporting them to gain a sense of connection with themselves and their surroundings. It was a great pleasure recently to talk to Miles about the creative and playful approaches I am developing in my work with museums, galleries and heritage sector. We talked about the resources I’ve designed, including my origami ‘Nature Explore’ game, which has a series of open-ended questions to take the user on a journey of any distance and make nature connection discoveries along the way.

Resources – Other Ways to Walk origami ‘nature explore’ game

I was particularly interested in Miles’s matrix of ‘micro-activities’, as a foundation for developing prompts for nature connectedness focussed activities. I have developed a wide range of different resources, looking tools, invitations and activities to support nature connectedness, and it is interesting to think about them in relation to this matrix and the Five Pathways. I enjoy striking a balance between very practical activities, ‘look at a tree for a long time’ and more philosophical or poetic ideas ‘walk in a way that connects you with time and space’ – and sometimes the downright silly ‘follow a map of a different place’. I know from experience how these different approaches offer different ‘ways in’ for participants, but it’s great to map them against Miles’s matrix – and people always love to hear about how their nature connected experience is supported by measurable scientific evidence of the benefits to wellbeing.

My sessions and resources are necessarily open ended, designed to be used by people of all ages and abilities. They don’t follow prescribed routes or fixed activities and can be used in a tiny garden or on a full day hike, so the walker can create their own adventure of discovery. For example, my Other Ways to Walk cards include 15 individual cards with invitations to connect with nature and hand drawn images – use one card as a theme for a whole walk, or take turns to draw cards and follow the invitations.

Resources – Other Ways to Walk in Formal Parks cards

It’s impossible (and also undesirable) to plan a detailed session as the character of a particular stretch of path can change so dramatically from one hour to the next and real nature connection can only happen with what is actually there! A breeze might be rippling a field one moment and total stillness the next – a sudden blackbird alarm call can make you jump changing the mood entirely – bright sun gives way to cloud and thoughts close in.  There is no logical step-by-step process to nature connection, it’s an individual process and can happen in subtle or more powerful ways – but always based on meaningful engagement with nature.

For some, this might include invitations to slow down and linger using guided meditation, sensory activities, poetry and metaphor supported by reflective facilitated conversations. For others, it might involve games to randomise the route, or using chance to determine what activities we will do, drawing, poetry and various props to help people notice things that may have gone unnoticed. I’ve trained as a forest guide and mindfulness instructor, and also done a bit of animal tracking and forest immersion – magpie-like I take the bits that are relevant into my practice and synthesise them into whatever resource or activity is most appropriate for the circumstance.

Through a gradual process of carefully observing and listening to people in nature I am able to encourage them to follow their own fascination and curiosity, noticing what they are drawn to. This naturally leads to a sort of dance between the different themes identified in Miles’s matrix – an invitation to lie under a tree and notice movements in the branches can appear very passive, yet in reality the participant is moving between a great many experiences…

feeling the damp, cold earth under their body, smelling the earthy leaf litter, noticing sunlit spider threads, recalling childhood rolling down hills, appreciating details in the shape of branches,  feeling resonance or dissonance with the pace of movement in the branches, sensing changes in their thinking and emotions, wondering why they argued with their loved ones again that morning, hearing a dog in the distance, sounds bringing them back to the present and noticing that their attention had wandered from the tree, hearing birds, squirrels, the creak of the boughs, finding meaning in the way a robin flicks it’s tail, wondering how long they’ve got to lie here, feeling safe and protected by the tree, noticing a sense of opening and compassion…

The flow of thought and feeling interact with the sensory prompts from nature. People can simultaneously be admiring beauty, feeling compassion, connecting with feelings and tuning into their senses then without noticing this dissolves into thinking, planning, remembering, disconnecting from this experience of lying under a tree. The value is in noticing when they come back, training their senses to notice how it feels. As a guide I see it as my role to set the conditions and hold the space for this to happen, then to drop in facts or information to encourage or support one of the five pathways or link to another. For example, people sometimes need their words repeating back to them ‘so lying under the tree helped you feel safe – do you think the tree felt safe too? What could you do to help the trees stay safe?’ (linking to ‘emotions’ and ‘compassion’ in the matrix.)

Workshop Participant.  Photo Credit: Paul Floyd Blake

The real challenge for me is to facilitate learning from these experiences – to encourage reflexive behaviours and an understanding of how people can take this into their lives – so much of it happens inside someone’s mind, it can be hard to tell what’s happening.  Occasionally, someone joyously declares their life has been transformed and I go home with an extra glow – a recent participant said the experience was ‘like a kind of magic fairy dust. You’ve opened me up. I can see beauty in the world that wasn’t there before.’ These words have helped me too – to notice and welcome that feeling of joy when I notice some beautiful detail in nature.

 

Rachel Howfield Massey is arts and wellbeing practitioner and founder of Other Ways to Walk. She develops bespoke resources and offers training and consultancy.

For more information:

www.otherwaystowalk.co.uk

info@otherwaystowalk.co.uk

Facebook: @OtherWaysToWalk

Twitter: @rachelhowfield

 

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A Green Care Code

A theme of my research into improving our relationship with nature for both human and nature’s wellbeing has been that the simple things in nature matter. Our first intervention was simply noticing the ‘good things in nature’. Jotting down the good things in nature each day for a week led to sustained increases in nature connectedness – which helps us feel good and function well – and also increases pro-nature behaviours.

More recently we developed a smartphone app to prompt people to notice the good things in urban nature. People wrote about breeze in the trees, beauty of flowers, active wildlife, changing seasons, birds singing.  Doing so for a week led to a sustained improvement in nature connectedness and clinically significant improvements in mental health. It’s clear – simple moments matter. There is magic in the power of everyday nature because we evolved to make sense of nature.

Sadly, people tend not to notice nature. There are many demands for our attention and nature features less and less in our lives. Indeed, the climate and wildlife emergencies show that our relationship with nature is broken. Fixing that relationship requires transformational change throughout society. However, part of that change is more people being more aware of the benefits of a close relationship with nature. Reminding people to pause and notice the good things in nature.

We need a Green Care Code. A code where we care for nature and we care for ourselves. A future with more wildlife and more enjoyment of it. Coincidently, the simple message for a Green Care Code is much the same as the Green Cross Code – Stop. Look. Listen. So, as a bit of fun (and perhaps getting the message across), here’s what a Green Care Code might look like (thanks to my daughter):

Green Care Code

Thinking of the green cross code raises a wider point, where are the Public information films for the climate emergency? Where are the information campaigns for the biodiversity crisis?  Over the decades there have been public information films for crossing the road, road safety more generally, danger of farms and railways, swimming and ponds. There have also been extensive government health campaigns on smoking, drinking and eating. As there’s no well-being without nature’s well-being, new campaigns are needed as part of the transformational change required for a sustainable future. Currently, nature is overlooked too often. For example – as I’ve posted before – there’s no reference to the benefits of nature in the 5 Ways to Wellbeing. This matters because we need to emphasise the essential role of nature in our lives wherever we can.

 

(And a story board quickly put together with limited clipart).

A Green Care Code

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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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