Beyond Contact with Nature to Connection

Over the last 15 years, nature connection has become a recognised and measurable psychological construct – one that describes an individual’s sense of their relationship with the natural world. That is our emotional attachment and beliefs about our inclusion within nature. These aspects affect our being – how we experience the world, our emotional response, our attitudes and behaviour towards nature. This blog accompanies the launch of the Nature Connections 2016 conference report which expands on why nature connection matters for wellbeing, summarises nature connection research and highlights key steps forward.

Nature connection includes beliefs about our inclusion within nature

This is an exciting area of research and practice, evidence explored within the report shows that nature connection is an important factor in positive mental health and wellbeing. It acts as a mediator for wellbeing outcomes associated with exposure to nature. In fact, the wellbeing benefits of nature have been reported as being as important as established factors such as income and education. Evidence also points to nature connection being linked to the development of pro-environmental and pro-conservation behaviours.

However, we humans have created a culture that divides us from the nature that keeps us well. At a time when there is an urgent need to address health inequalities and support a more sustainable approach to the environment, there is a real need to develop a better understanding of our connection with nature and identify how research and practice can support and inform decision makers going forward. A connection with nature can help keep us, and our environment, well.

The Nature Connections conference, led and hosted by the University of Derby in June 2016, was an important step in better understanding the scale and scope of existing research and practice, exploring evidence of how nature connection works, its role in delivering health and wellbeing outcomes, and how the key attributes of nature connection could be better incorporated into the design of future nature-based interventions.

The conference had a specific aim to identify the current challenges and priorities for research and practice, and to do this by bringing together researchers and practitioners from a wide variety of disciplines with an interest in nature connection.

The NCx2016 conference report provides a useful summary of the wider context of health and wellbeing issues, and a summary of nature connection research. The report also includes the evidence shared at the conference, including presentations from the UK, Australia, Canada, Norway, Germany and Eire. The conference and its report were both kindly supported by a partnership of organisations with an interest in research and practice in this area, including Natural England, RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts, National Trust and Historic England.

The conference highlighted that awareness of the construct of nature connection and of the tools that exist to measure it rests mainly within a relatively small research community. Among practitioner communities, whilst contact with nature or exposure to nature is being used extensively to support outcome delivery, there was relatively little evidence that there was awareness (or evaluation) of the construct of nature connection; rather that the term nature connection was being used more generally to mean contact with nature or exposure to nature. This makes it difficult to move beyond contact and identification to developing a meaningful and emotional relationship with nature – its joy and calm!

This reflects the key theme to emerge from the conference, which was the need and opportunity to enable a more collaborative approach between research and practice communities working in this area, one that helps build the evidence base not only on contact with nature but on nature connection, and one that actively includes the many disciplines with an interest in this area such as education, health, psychology, planning, and environment. This move ‘beyond contact’ is the headline theme of the next Nature Connections conference, once again hosted by the University of Derby on 27th June 2017.

The report recommends that future nature-based interventions will require a more strategic, integrated research programme in nature connection which should:

  • Develop a simple, consistent description/narrative to articulate what a connection with nature is, why it is important and how to evaluate it in practical situations.
  • Gather evidence to strengthen our understanding of;

o How nature connection is linked to, or mediates, physical health, wellbeing, pro-social, and pro-environmental outcomes.

o The qualities of natural environments and the types of experiences that facilitate nature connection (including those mediated by technology).

o Whether and how childhood experiences develop nature connection, and the role these have in determining the outcomes of adults.

o The influence of culture and socio-cultural factors on nature connection in a UK context, informed by an understanding of nature connection in an international context.

o The relative importance of contact with nature and nature connection in delivering outcomes, and their role in driving people’s use of green space.

To inform and be part of the way forward come along to the next Nature Connections conference, once again hosted by the University of Derby on 27th June 2017. Details of the call for papers and booking available from the conference website.


About Miles

Professor of Human Factors & Nature Connectedness - improving connection to (the rest of) nature to unite human & nature’s wellbeing.
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